'Many Bnei Brak families have small homes and up to 14 kids'

Fretting and making do, Israelis prepare to celebrate the Exodus in isolation

Ahead of a very different night, social distancing rules and travel restrictions make cleaning, cooking and planning for the holiday difficult; many will spend Seder night alone

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Residents of Beit Shemesh shop at a vegetable stand hours before the start of the Passover holiday. April 8, 2020. (Sam Sokol)
Residents of Beit Shemesh shop at a vegetable stand hours before the start of the Passover holiday. April 8, 2020. (Sam Sokol)

With Passover fast approaching, Dr. Yehuda Sabiner has been unable to return home to assist his wife and children in preparing for the holiday. Instead, the Hasidic medical resident from the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak has spent the past week caring for coronavirus patients at Ramat Gan’s Sheba Medical Center, one of millions of Israelis whose annual Passover preparations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly severe travel restrictions and social distancing regulations imposed by the government to halt the disease’s spread.

“It is a very stressful and emotional situation,” Sabiner told The Times of Israel, describing how medical professionals in his position have had to treat not only strangers but also people “that you know from your neighborhood and also from your own street.”

“We had a couple of deaths in our department,” he said.

He added, though, that while he is currently at the center of the crisis, he also sees his spouse as bearing a heavy burden. “I think the major sacrifices are my wife’s who is staying alone with the children, without, of course, any help from the family because we are trying to keep safe” and obey social distancing regulations.

Such distancing is especially hard during the run-up to Passover, a holiday in which Jews traditionally refrain from eating bread, having cleared their homes top-to-bottom and restocked their pantries with food items approved for holiday consumption. It begins with the festive Seder meal — this year on Wednesday evening — which is generally a large and preparation-intensive affair.

Dr. Yehuda Sabiner (Courtesy)

Shoppers across the country have been forced to wait for hours outside supermarkets that are only allowing in small batches of customers at a time in order to minimize the risk of infection. With everybody standing two meters apart, the lines can stretch for blocks. For a woman taking care of small children in her husband’s absence, the logistical hurdles can be enormous.

“We’re getting a lot of assistance from the community back in Bnei Brak,” Sabiner said, describing how family friends took time out of their busy schedules to go shopping on his wife’s behalf.

Shifra Rosenblum, 60, another resident of Bnei Brak, complained that the recent shortage of eggs, as well as social distancing regulations, have made her preparations for the holiday incredibly difficult.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “We haven’t gone out for two weeks. We [finally] went out to go to the store and waited in line for an hour and a half.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of them wearing mask, cross a street in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Over the weekend, the city of 200,000 residents was declared a restricted zone and cordoned off, which has further complicated holiday preparations, Rosenblum explained.

“Deliveries can enter but it’s expensive to get stuff delivered and I’m not sure how we will manage. In this city, it’s not simple to deal with the situation. It’s a lot harder because we can’t go out, and if we need something we either have to have it delivered or to give up on it. There are a lot of families with small apartments and [up to] 14 kids. They don’t have smartphones or internet to entertain their kids or order stuff online. It’s really not simple. It’s a challenge. But I accept it with love because that’s what it is.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced that Israelis would be barred from leaving their homes during the first night of Passover, as part of a general lockdown throughout the country over the holiday.

Because of the restrictions, “there are lots of people doing the Seder alone,” said Rosenblum. “I have hosted a woman for years, but now she can’t come.”

IDF troops deliver food to residents of the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, which is largely closed off from the rest of the country due to a coronavirus outbreak, on April 5, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In an effort to address the problem, the IDF is currently delivering 1,000 tons of food to needy residents of Bnei Brak, a complex logistical task requiring hundreds of soldiers operating inside the coronavirus-stricken Tel Aviv suburb to work day and night to get the food to the people who need it in time.

The city of Bnei Brak has suffered one of Israel’s largest outbreaks of the coronavirus, with 1,323 confirmed cases as of Monday morning — nearly as many as Jerusalem, which has the largest tally according to Health Ministry data from Monday. Bnei Brak is one-fifth the size of the capital. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community initially dismissed social distancing regulations, which officials say has led to the high rate of infection.

Modified traditions

Shopping and cooking are not the only things that have become harder for all Israelis this year. Several pre-holiday traditions have required modification as well, with the Chief Rabbinate issuing instructions on how to adapt to changing circumstances.

In a statement issued late last month, chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef declared that the process of selling one’s hametz (bread and other leavened wheat products prohibited during Passover) to be rid of it during the holiday can be done online via the Rabbinate’s website.

Instead of burning leftover hametz on Passover eve, people should this year throw it into a bin and pour bleach on it so it is no longer fit for even a dog to eat. If not much is left, people can dispose of it by flushing it down the toilet instead.

“I have been inundated with work making it virtually impossible for me to prepare, and I have 6 kids here eating 3 times a day — so no cleaning has been possible,” said Rachel Moore, the owner of a public relations firm in the West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel.

Rachel Moore. (Facebook)

The 48-year old mother of eight said that she was handling preparations by “lowering my expectations” and ordering a trampoline to keep her younger children out of the house.

“Pesach this year will be pared down; much simpler. Less fanfare, fewer ‘new things’ (no new clothes), less elaborate menu, and definitely less cleaning done. And I am determined to have that come across to the kids as little as possible. I want them to feel great about Pesach,” she said.

She said that she had accepted that she would not get everything done on time, and that she was focusing on the essentials as required by Jewish law, making use of leniencies provided by many rabbis this year.

“It will have to be enough,” she said.

Richard Tabachnik, a resident of the northern town of Zichron Yaakov, also seemed upbeat about the upcoming holiday, even though he felt “very isolated.” Rather than celebrating Passover with his extended family, he will celebrate the Seder with only one of his children.

Asked how he was coping, he simply said “tequila.”

A different night, psychologically and religiously

Outside of Israel, Passover preparations have also been difficult.

Bella Goldshtein, a Russian Jew who has spent the past several years in Washington DC, said that she is currently under quarantine at her parents’ home in Tula, some 200 kilometers (approximately 124 miles) from Moscow.

“I feel that this Passover will be different — psychologically and from the religious perspective both,” she told The Times of Israel.

A woman shops for matzah at a supermarket in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Recently, I came back from the US. According to the measures that have been taken by the Russian government to stop spreading COVID-19, I am quarantined for two weeks, which is totally fine in the current circumstances but a little bit unusual in terms of upcoming Passover.

While the local Jewish community was able to provide wine and matzah for the holiday, Goldshtein said that she has been unable to source other kosher-for-Passover products aside from fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a chance for me to celebrate with my Soviet-Jewish parents and bring some Yiddishkeit [Jewishness] into their home.”

But over a decade after moving out of their home, she has become increasingly religious, which complicates things.

“I have a dilemma now — to give up a little bit on the strict Passover rules and to cook gefilte fish and matzah ball soup with mom in her non-kosher kitchen but make them happy, or enjoy matzah avocado toasts from disposable [dishes] alone.”

No matter what happens, this year’s holiday will be one to remember, she said.

Judah Ari Gross and Michael Bachner contributed to this report.

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