EAST COBB — This weekend, as Jews celebrate their ancestors’ freedom from Egyptian slavery, the Jewish community is also celebrating another kind of freedom. With more residents becoming vaccinated against the coronavirus, the faithful are preparing to reunite with fellow worshipers.
The eight-day Passover begins Saturday night, and for many the holiday is marked by Seder meals the first two nights. Seder, which means “order,” is a tradition that includes food and other items that symbolize the Exodus story of the Israelites leaving Egypt. The dinner includes matzah, or unleavened bread to represent the Israelites’ quick departure from Egypt, a bitter herb, often horseradish, to represent slavery and salt water to represent the Israelites’ tears.
At Congregation Etz Chaim in east Cobb, worshipers were meeting for limited services until December, when COVID-19 spread and illness peaked in the county and across Georgia. This weekend’s Passover services will be the first time since then that congregants can be together, outdoors and in limited numbers, said Rabbi Daniel Dorsch.
In addition to the in-person outdoor services, Etz Chaim will host a virtual second night Seder Sunday.
“One of the main themes of Passover is the journey that the Jewish people take from slavery to freedom, and it feels like we are starting to have a degree of freedom restored to us that a virus had taken away,” Dorsch said.
Dorsch noted that Passover and the days leading up to Easter are at the same time this year.
“I feel it’s very special that Jews and Christians and so many in our community can celebrate our holidays at the same time. I think it creates a heightened sense of spirituality among society in general when that happens, and it’s a really special thing,” he said.
Just a mile away, Temple Kol Emeth’s congregation largely hasn’t met for in-person worship for about a year. That includes Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, who became the lead rabbi early in the pandemic. Services have remained online only, except for preschool and the occasional bar or bat mitzvah, Sernovitz said.
In addition to their second-night Seder, other virtual Passover programs include youth activities, a women’s Seder and a yizkor, or memorial service for loved ones who have died. Wednesday, the synagogue hosted a Jewish-Muslim Passover Ramadan program with the East Cobb Islamic Center. The mosque will host a second one during Ramadan. And March 31, Sernovitz and the Jewish Community Relations Council will hold a hunger Seder with nonprofits to call attention to food insecurity.
Sernovitz recalled the 10 plagues in the Passover story, and said the coronavirus is “the 11th plague.” At the same time, more of his congregation is getting vaccinated, including grandparents who can now visit their children and grandchildren for the holiday, he said. He hopes they can open again for services in mid-to-late April.
“We talk about being socially distanced but spiritually connected. I think the one thing Passover teaches us is, as a collective, the only way that we can find freedom is together,” he said. “We don’t know what tomorrow will look like. But Passover reminds us that we have to keep faith and keep hope that tomorrow will be OK. There’s a beautiful phrase in Hebrew that says ‘gam zeh ya’avor’ — ‘this too shall pass.’ We’ve been through a lot in the past, but we’re still here. We’ve lost a ton of people ... and I think that from the plagues, we move to a regained faith and trust in one another. And the future is ours together.”