New Passover guide aims to help families with loved ones living with dementia

Tzohar and Emda organizations team up to provide practical guidance on how to follow Jewish law while including the ill in holiday traditions as best as possible

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Israelis attend a Passover seder in Mishmar David, April 15, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israelis attend a Passover seder in Mishmar David, April 15, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A new guide for celebrating Passover for families caring for a loved one with dementia has been released by the Tzohar and Emda organizations. It provides useful information on how to celebrate the holiday according to Jewish law and ethics, while also attending to the emotional needs of those with Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that destroy memory and cognitive function.

“Dementia is probably the pandemic of the 21st century. Almost every family has someone with it or is connected to someone with it,” said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Center for Ethics at the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.

It is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 150,000 people in Israel living with dementia.

Tzohar is an Israel-based organization founded by religious-Zionist Orthodox rabbis to bridge gaps between religious and secular Jews by encouraging a more informed, accessible and compassionate understanding of Jewish tradition and identity. Tzohar rabbis take a non-judgmental and non-coercive approach, which they use to assist Israeli Jews with numerous lifecycle events connected to Jewish practice and tradition.

Emda, the Alzheimer’s Association of Israel, was founded in the late 1980s. Run by volunteers, it has 38 branches country-wide and raises awareness about Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. It also offers support for people affected and their families.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow. (Aryeh Katz)

Although Passover and the days leading up to it are filled with joy, they can also be anxiety-provoking — especially for those with dementia who do not have a clear grasp of time and space. The hubbub of intense cleaning, cooking, and other preparations cause a change in routine, which can be alarmingly confusing. People with dementia may also not be able to participate in the Passover seder as they once did.

“So we decided to make something very systematic. We collected all the questions that we received and wrote the guide taking into consideration halacha [Jewish law], medical knowledge, and humanity,” Cherlow said.

The guide is divided into sections covering pre-holiday obligations and preparations, the seder night, and the weeklong holiday. Recommendations and suggestions are provided along with specific instructions about how the person with dementia can fulfill mitzvot (religious obligations).

“We took into consideration what the minimum of the minimum is with regard to fulfilling the mitzvotWe make it clear that one must not violate anything that one must do, but it is possible to make adjustments,” Cherlow explained.

“For instance, you don’t actually have to recite the entire Haggadah [Passover seder text]. We tried to define what the spine of the seder is — what everyone has to say — so that the family can say it with the loved one with dementia… Later, the family can go back and do a more complete seder with all the songs and games,” he said.

If the person is unable to attend a seder after nightfall at all, then it is acceptable to perform an abbreviated seder with them before the holiday.

The guide emphasizes that it is preferable for family members to celebrate the seder at the home of the person with dementia, where they are surrounded by their own belongings and a familiar setting. If they are taken to a seder elsewhere, it is important to bring for them familiar objects like the Haggadah they traditionally use or the pillow they usually recline on.

“Familiar songs and tunes can uplift the spirit of a person with dementia and evoke pleasant memories. It is recommended to sing with them at all times — and especially on the seder night,” the guide says.

Ilana Attia, whose husband died a year ago after a decade-long battle with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, agreed that keeping him happy was the most important thing — on Passover and throughout the year.

“We ourselves have to keep the mitzvot, but at the same time radiate happiness, because that is what people with dementia understand. They understand emotion,” she said.

A Jerusalem resident, Attia told The Times of Israel that as she read the new guide, its contents resonated with her.

“My mind went back to the last two years we had together and it gives me great satisfaction that my husband was very happy at Passover,” she said.

Most Popular
read more: