A night different from all others over past two years
In 2020, just as we were ready to celebrate Pesach, the time of our freedom, COVID-19 ensured that freedom as we knew it was a thing of the past.
No shul. No big seders. No extended family. Falling during South Africa’s hard lockdown, Pesach 2020 was unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Being with family who lived in different cities or countries was impossible, and even those who stayed minutes away from each other were forced to be apart.
Although 2021 came with fewer COVID-19 restrictions, it still lacked the true freedom that the festival commemorates.
This Pesach, we’ll celebrate not just our liberation from Egypt, but also a return to larger seders surrounded by loved ones from around the world. It will be difficult not to notice the freedom we have won back.
Based in London, Liane and Warren Hetz and their two children always try to come back to Johannesburg to celebrate seders with their families. They have felt the lack of family over Pesach acutely since COVID-19 struck.
“Over the past two years, our seders have been small and vastly different from the large gatherings we would usually have with our family and friends in South Africa,” says Liane. “We still made the seders fun for our children, but there was a sense that something was missing – that feeling of being apart is always greater over yom tov.”
“I’ve always had fond childhood memories of big family seders spent with my cousins, singing Ma’Nishtana and playing games while searching for the afikomen,” she says. “It’s important to me that my children get to create their own family memories.”
Sarah Berger has also missed big family yom tov celebrations. “In 2020, our seders were just my husband, myself, and our two-month-old sleeping daughter. We live in Joburg but had booked to go to my parents in Cape Town. Then we were locked down. In Pesach 2021, we were fortunate to be able to go to Cape Town, but our seders were still small – it was just the three of us and my parents. Though those seders were simple compared to what we’re used to, they were special in their own way.”
Though the COVID-19 “plague” is still a reality this Pesach, it’s one that we’ve largely learned to live with. With that comes a welcome return to large family seders, visits from loved ones living abroad, and Pesach getaways that allow us to immerse ourselves fully in holiday traditions.
“Thank G-d, this year there’s a return to normality across the board,” says Rabbi Ari Kievman of Sandton Central Shul. “That’s not to negate that there are people, particularly seniors, who are lonely and who aren’t going to be with others, so it’s important to uplift their spirit, something we’re doing before Pesach with visits from volunteers. Yet, I’m in touch with a lot of people and that’s the message I’m hearing – they’re having a lot more guests at their seders.”
There are also numerous expats flying into South Africa to celebrate with their families. Indeed, Berger is thrilled that her brother and sister-in-law, Adam and Tali Shapiro, and their three children, who live in Ramat Beit Shemesh in Israel, will be joining her family for Pesach this year. Though they did manage to see Adam and his family when they flew to Cape Town in December 2020, they have missed celebrating yom tov together. They’re excited about a return to large family seders.
“We’re going to be at my brother’s in-laws for the first seder and my parents will also be here from Cape Town, so it will probably be big and loud like ‘the good old days’ – much more like we’re used to,” says Berger. “I’m looking forward to my daughter being able to play with her cousins and interact with her aunt and uncle whom she only met as a baby, and also to see my parents with four of their five grandchildren.”
For the Hetz’s, who are travelling to Johannesburg this Pesach, it’s also about celebrating a return to tradition and yom tov with family, some of whom they haven’t seen for almost three years. “I’ve missed all the family being together, the joy of seeing the little cousins forming their special bonds,” says Liane. “I’m looking forward to my mom’s chopped herring! Some of our family members are coming up from Cape Town, and this will be the first time the grandparents will be with all their grandchildren in three and a half years, so it will be extra special.”
Not only are friends and extended families celebrating together, Kievman’s own yom tov getaway, The Pesach Retreat, which he runs together with his wife, Batya, to benefit Chabad seniors programmes, was already fully booked a month ago. Considering they had to cancel the retreat in 2020 and operate at limited capacity in 2021, it’s a welcome return to how things used to be.
About 300 guests are expected to take over the Hunter’s Rest Resort in Rustenburg for a week filled with delicious food, lectures, workshops, entertainment, and activities. COVID-19 regulations are still in place and guests will have seders in “pods” with their families and others with whom they wish to connect. Yet there’s flexibility around this and a sense of true liberation, in keeping with the spirit of the chag.
“Pesach is meant to be an experience where you get to taste freedom, experience some luxury and have a meaningful personal experience,” says Kievman. “The ultimate freedom we look for is personal liberation, achieving a new goal, striving towards something that you haven’t been able to attain. Pesach isn’t just ‘his’-tory, the story of Moses, it has to be our story, our experience, which is what we try to facilitate at the retreat.”