St. Louis Jews return to a more typical order for seders this year

Daniel Movitz Photo: Suzy Gorman

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Around this time last year, Daniel Movitz was preparing to celebrate Passover at his apartment in Clayton, using a seder kit he received from Chabad, the Jewish outreach organization. 

Like Jews around the world, Movitz was alone physically but held a seder over Zoom with his family.

“At least we did the traditions, but it was awful,” Movitz, 33, and a member of Congregaton B’nai Amoona, said before reconsidering. “I mean, I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but even though we did it on Zoom, it was kind of sad not to be together with the family, which is something I look forward to every year.”

This year, Movitz and others in the local Jewish community have been able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which means it is safer for them to gather in person. 

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There are also plenty of local Jews who have not yet been able to get the vaccine — or have family members who haven’t been able to — and so for a second year in a row, they will be holding virtual seders or small in-person ones with their pod. 

Movitz will be among about 10 family members heading to his mom’s home in Ladue.

And while that’s smaller than their usual gathering of 30 to 40 people from around the world, being able to gather again to celebrate a Jewish holiday is a welcome change for Movitz and many others in St. Louis. 

Passover last year “was the very beginning of the pandemic, and it felt so hard to have this home holiday that people could not have at home. So to have this be the one-year marker and have people really feel that they could slowly allow people into their homes is absolutely a relief,” said Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel. 

For Chabad, distributing the seder kits has been a priority for the organization the last two years. Its local rabbis could not host their usual large gatherings that are open to Jews who are observant or who have little connection to the religion.

Normally, the Chabad center at Washington University hosts about 280 people; this year, St. Louis County guidelines limit outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 30 people. To fill that difference, Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of the Chabad center, plans to distribute 250 seder kits.  The five Chabad centers in the St. Louis area were distributing Seder-to-Go kits to more than 800 households, which they estimated would benefit approximately 4,000 individuals.

Novack, who has been hosting outdoor Shabbat services each week, sees trying to help people gather and celebrate as important because “we are looking at a physical crisis, in terms of the COVID pandemic, but we are also looking at a mental health crisis. Our goal is to be open and safe and also support young people during this very complicated time.”

Novack and attendees will gather outside in a tent without walls — like “Abraham’s tent in the desert,” he said. Guests will also wear masks and socially distance. 

Like Rabbi Feder, Novack is optimistic that with the number of virus cases falling and the number of people receiving the vaccine increasing, society has collectively turned a corner. 

“I want to hope that the message of freedom and redemption in the holiday of Passover is expressed in our country and our world this year. Last year at Passover it felt like we were at the beginning of something, and we had no idea what was going on. This year it truly feels like there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Novack said. 

In spite of the promising data concerning COVID, not all local rabbis who usually host large gatherings are doing so this year. 

Yossi Abenson, a fellow Chabad rabbi who normally hosts Jewish celebrations at his home in the Central West End, said he had hoped to have an outdoor seder, but securing a permit from the city of St. Louis to do so proved too difficult. He is now hosting only a handful of people, all of whom have received the vaccine. He has had to tell people that he cannot safely host them.

Still, Abenson and his wife, Goldie, have reached out to more than 500 people to ensure that they have somewhere to go for Passover as well as the necessary supplies. 

To fill the void created by pandemic restrictions, Abenson has been telling people about his belief in the power of creating traditions. For example, his father and grandfather always told the same story at a certain point in the Haggadah, the text recited during Passover, which Abenson and his six siblings across North America are now also sharing at their seders. That allows them to feel a bond even though they are apart.

“A lot of times, people don’t have the opportunity to create their own sense of connection and identity with the seder (but) when they are doing it on their own, they can explore a little bit and find out what it means to them. (They can) find certain tunes that they like that they didn’t sing at their family seder and start that tradition now,” he said.

Unlike the Chabad rabbis, Rabbi Avi Roberts did not consider hosting a seder outdoors for his organization, Ignite YP, a Jewish young professionals organization. 

“The entire structure of the Passover from the beginning until now… has been to have a home, family type of experience, so you can have a Shabbat meal outside. But the seder is a different vibe where more of it would be taken away if you tried to do that,” said Roberts, who has hosted a three-part Zoom series to help people understand the meaning of Passover. 

The Hillel at Washington University is planning to host students outdoors in three shifts — 5, 7 and 9 p.m. — for the first night seder. Individual students will have their own table six feet apart. 

“I’m excited for Passover in a way that I certainly wasn’t last year,” said Tony Westbook, assistant director of the Hillel. “While it is much smaller and with the awkward spacing where I am six feet away from my friends, we are still together and able to observe the holiday in a meaningful way…Passover is not a holiday that is meant to be celebrated alone. It’s an experiential holiday and touches all the senses and is meant to be engaging.”

For Jamie Sentnor, a member of Central Reform Congregation, that means moving her seder off of Zoom after gathering with 12 families on the platform last year. Given the technical issues that often arise when gathering virtually, Sentnor and her family decided that “we really wanted to be present,” with a dozen people inside her home in Creve Coeur, she said. 

A therapist who focuses on grief and loss, Sentnor said she and her family plan to borrow words from the Haggadah and discuss “what have we felt oppressed by in this past year? And what freedoms are we looking forward to taking back?”

For Sentnor, one of the most liberating developments was her daughter, Bryn, getting the COVID vaccine. She has type 1 diabetes, which could have placed her at a greater risk for severe illness from the virus. She and her roommate, who is not Jewish, will be traveling from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., for the seder.

“Boy it’s going to feel good to hug,” Sentnor said. “I know everyone is saying that, but it really is.”

Jan Baron, a congregant and Sunday school teacher at B’nai Amoona, is certainly looking forward to engaging with the holiday and family. She is gathering with about seven family members, all of whom have received the vaccine, which is slightly larger than last year but not the usual gathering of 20 people Baron typically hosts. 

Still, she is eagerly preparing for the holiday and plans to make kosher for Passover mandelbrot, a type of cookie, and matzah ball soup.

“I don’t think there is a feeling of being completely safe at this time, but it certainly is opening up and there is a much better feeling,” said Baron, who also has worked at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center. “I think this holiday of freedom has a double meaning: freedom from slavery and freedom from the pandemic.”

Movitz, who is general manager of STL Food Works, a culinary incubator and cooperative kitchen, is also tinkering with new food items, including a gourmet matzah pizza. One could be a Moroccan variety with cumin and the other, Middle Eastern spices. 

He could sell them next year as kits, he said.

His other hope for next year? To gather with the more members of his extended family, including 20 cousins between the United States and Israel.

“Like we always say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” he added.