Austin’s Jewish community prepares for Passover observance under quarantine

Passover, a major observance for members of the Jewish community, begins April 8. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many services are being held online. (Courtesy Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston)
Passover, a major observance for members of the Jewish community, begins April 8. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many services are being held online. (Courtesy Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston)

Passover, a major observance for members of the Jewish community, begins April 8. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many services are being held online. (Courtesy Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston)

At the beginning of every spring, Rabbi Mendy Levertov, the director of Young Jewish Professionals, said Chabad of Greater Austin typically prepares to host a community Seder for Passover.

That gathering, Levertov said, draws an average annual crowd of 60-80 celebrants. This year, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, that event has been canceled, and the Levertov family has cut down its number of invitations.

“We’re not inviting anyone over,” Levertov said.

Chabad of Greater Austin, along with thousands of Jewish residents across the city, are preparing to celebrate Passover, which begins April 8, under a stay-at-home order.

“The Seder will be a two person or one person event [this year,] which is crazy when you think about what the Seder is. It is multigenerational,” Levertov said. “Usually a small Seder will have five people, and then you have the Seders at our site, which are 60-70 people. The whole shift is mind boggling.”


As a result, many synagogues and Jewish organizations have pivoted to offer online services to families in lock down, the elderly and immunocompromised ahead of Passover, throughout Austin's stay-at-home order.

WHERE TO GET FOOD FOR PASSOVER

Passover begins April 8 and ends April 16. The Jewish holiday is held to commemorate the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, according to the Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center.

The eight night observation includes feasts—Seders—and bars the consumption of leavened breads.

In response to a need to deliver groceries necessary for the celebration of Passover, the Austin Jewish Family Service has delivered sanitized supplies to older adults and families with vulnerable members. Passover supply bags delivered to the community included matzah, gefilte fish and kosher snacks like tam tams and macaroons, according to the Jewish Family Service.

Wendy Goodman, the marketing and communications director for Shalom Austin, which operates the Jewish Family Service, said the organization has also delivered hot Passover meals to members of the Jewish community in Austin. The Jewish Family Service will continue to deliver hot Passover meals through April 8.

A list of caterers offering Passover menus is available on the Shalom Austin website.

Chabad of Greater Austin has also created Seder packages for families to hold feasts at home, and will continue to offer those for pickup into the evening of April 8, Levertov said. Families can also reach out for a list of caterers offering Seder meals for Passover, as well as Seder recipes.

“We created a Seder package, which includes a lot of greetings and decor—all of the paraphernalia for the festivity,” Levertov said.

Two kosher establishments in Austin—the Kosher Store at Far West H-E-B and the Kosher Bakery at Randalls on Balcones Drive—also offer food and ingredients for Passover celebrations.

PASSOVER GOES ONLINE

While synagogues in Central Texas have been forced to close their doors to visitors, some Austin-area synagogues are taking to Zoom to hold Passover seders and celebrations.

A handful of synagogues—Chaverim B'Kavanah, Congregation Beth El, Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Beth Shalom, Congregation Agudas Achim—all plan to hold some Passover services over Zoom, according to the Shalom Austin website.

Dates and times of those online Passover services vary and RSVPs are required for attendance.

Shalom Austin is hosting a virtual Passover Seder for young Jewish adults in Austin on April 8 at 7 p.m., according to the Shalom Austin website. Registration for the event is required.

The organization is also holding a community Havdalah and Passover concert on April 11. A link to attend this event is on the Shalom Austin website.

Members in the Orthodox Jewish community don’t interact with electronics while they observe Shabbat due to their held beliefs, Levertov said. As a result, Chabad of Greater Austin will not be streaming any Seders for Passover services.

However, Chabad of Greater Austin ahead of Passover has prepared videos and reading materials for its members to lead their own Seders at home.

“We wrote a guide—what to buy, where to buy, ingredients and recipes. We included a video on how to lead a Seder. It is multifaceted,” Levertov said. “As a rabbi, part of my role is to provide questions for people to think about during a Seder. We wrote down the questions I would be asking this year.”

SUPPORT SERVICES FOR AUSTIN’S JEWISH COMMUNITY

Many members of Austin’s Jewish community will likely be observing Passover this year in isolation, Levertov said.

“Judaism strongly suggests people are social,” Levertov said. “A lot of the community members, they’re young adults. A lot of them are alone, maybe they're working from home or maybe they're not working at all.”

Once Passover ends, Levertov said he intends to do a community roundup to hear experiences and see what else Chabad of Greater Austin can provide moving forward.

Currently, Levertov hosts a weekly class held on Wednesday evenings over Zoom. Chabad of Greater Austin also hosts singing gatherings on Friday evenings before the sabbath begins.

“We do it just to keep the feeling of community. It adds a little bit of spice there,” Levertov said.

The Jewish Family Service is offering several virtual services through its website for members of Austin’s Jewish community.

Goodman said the organization offers telehealth counseling sessions at no cost for adults who need to talk to someone about stressors, such as food insecurity and financial problems, during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Jewish Family Service also runs a food pantry to deliver critical food items to community members in need, such as Austin’s elderly population or those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions, according to the Jewish Family Service website. The group is further offering emergency financial assistance for help with rent or utilities to members of the Jewish community.

“We really, truly want to be a resource for those in the Jewish community,” Goodman said.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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