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Hard to keep up spirits without children or grandchildren

Solitary seders and Zoom: Israel celebrates Passover under coronavirus lockdown

Large festive family meals replaced with many celebrating alone or in small groups as government tightens restrictions, fearing gatherings could spark fresh wave of infections

Perahia Shilo arranges the Passover Seder dinner table next to a picture of her children and grandchildren, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, April 8, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Perahia Shilo arranges the Passover Seder dinner table next to a picture of her children and grandchildren, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, April 8, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Millions of Jewish Israelis sat down to celebrate the Passover seder on Wednesday evening under the shadow of the coronavirus and a countrywide curfew, confining people to their homes for the first night of the holiday.

The festive meal, traditionally a large gathering of family or friends, was being marked by many in solitary quarantine, or only with those confined together in the same house.

Some, less traditionally observant, used programs like Zoom and FaceTime to connect virtually for the meal, that puts a focus on passing traditions down from generation to generation.

Channel 12 broadcast “The Great Israeli Seder Live,” with presenters leading the seder meal together, surrounded by large screens with hundreds joining in on Zoom. From time-to-time they checked in with various celebrities from their meals.

“It’s difficult to keep the spirits up when we are apart from our children and grandchildren, but tradition must continue,” said TV presenter Haim Hecht before reading a passage from the Hagadah on the show.

The more observant Orthodox were forced to make do without technology and social media. Some set up pictures of their family members around the table, while others, who lived in apartment buildings, kept doors open so the elderly or those who were alone could listen in on proceedings.

Some communities called on people to come out onto their balconies to sing together the “Four Questions,” traditionally asked by the youngest child.

And in hospitals across the country, medical staff in full protective gear took quick breaks to participate in festive meals, before getting back to treating the sick.

Medical personnel sit down for a Passover seder at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba on April 8, 2020. (Health Ministry)

The government put a focus on stopping people holding large family gatherings, fearing a repeat of the Purim holiday in early March when hundreds of parties went ahead, which have since been identified as a major source of infections. Officials fear a fresh wave of infections and push Israel backwards just as initial signs of recovery have started to emerge.

Senior Israel Police official Gilad Bahat told Channel 13 that the vast majority of Israelis have been abiding by the nationwide curfew, saying that only a handful have sought to break it thus far.

As evening fell, most roads were almost completely deserted.

Under the curfew, which began at 3 p.m. and will end Thursday at 7 a.m., Israelis are barred from traveling more than 100 meters from their homes and all businesses must close.

As 3 p.m. approached, some supermarkets began closing their doors before the curfew took effect to allow their employees to get home in time. Television footage showed other stores continued to have long lines, as Israelis sought to make last-minute purchases.

Despite the curfew taking effect, there was a long line of cars on Route 1 as police questioned drivers heading toward Jerusalem.

Border Police are seen after dispersing ultra-Orthodox Jewish children burning leavened items in final preparation for the Passover holiday in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

To enforce the curfew, thousands of police officers were deployed throughout the country, along with some 1,400 IDF soldiers to help assure Israelis were adhering to the restrictions.

“In practice, the police will nearly be deployed to its largest possible extent,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the Ynet news site.

He said police would deploy helicopters and drones to ensure Israelis remain at home and that more controversial technologies such as tracking people’s phones to ensure crowds aren’t gathering would also be used.

Erdan rejected the characterization of the stricter lockdown as a curfew, saying instead they were “significant” restrictions meant to save people’s lives.

“The main thing that we’re trying to prevent is the holding of seders or joint events,” he said. “We paid the price of high morbidity after the Purim meals.”

The curfew comes after a general lockdown took effect Tuesday evening, confining Israelis to the communities in which they live.

The empty Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv on April 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

From Thursday morning until Friday, Israelis will again be permitted to move within their cities and towns for essential needs, but will not be allowed to leave city limits. Exceptions will be made for those who do not have supermarkets and pharmacies in their towns, but they may go only to the nearest town with those services.

Jerusalem residents will be confined throughout the lockdown and curfew within the city zone they live in, after government officials sketched out a division of the city — which has the largest number of virus cases in the country — into seven portions.

Public transportation throughout the country ceased on Tuesday evening and will not resume until Sunday morning. The government also canceled all international flights from Tuesday night through Sunday, unless the airlines receive special permission from the transportation and interior ministries.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew prays at his house in Bnei Brak during a lockdown as part of the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The curfew measure will not extend to Arab towns, where Passover is not celebrated.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 73 Israelis have died from the virus, which has infected over 9,400 people.

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