Seder, Covid 19 and the Commonwealth

Illustrative. Seder plate. (Jewish News)
Illustrative. Seder plate. (Jewish News)

I don’t want to get things out of proportion. Events of far more importance are being lost, put off and cancelled than my, by comparison, little concern. But it is still a loss and one you might be interested in, not because it didn’t happen but because it might have done – and still will, sooner or later.

We at the Commonwealth Jewish Council were planning a model seder. We’re not alone in that. Around now, usually, schools and churches here and abroad run such events. Indeed, I wrote and produced the original ‘Seder Handbook’ for such model seders when I worked at the Board of Deputies in the 1980s.

But few would have been so colourful and diverse a gathering as that which we were anticipating.

We invited all the High Commissions of the Commonwealth. That’s 54 countries. We added folk from the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to our list. The response was instant and enthusiastic.

We would have had people from Pacific Island nations, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and Asia: a glorious multi-cultural gathering at which we would have showcased and shared our traditions while exploring Pesakh’s relevance for today: modern slavery is still a thing, oppression and discrimination are common across the world, and refugees still flee unacceptable lives, just as our ancestors did more than three millennia ago.

Doing a seder with non-Jews present is salutary. You can’t just settle into familiarity, taking refuge in ‘this is how we’ve always done it’, but must ask openly – or often be asked by our guests! – what does this all mean to us? just like the four children in the Haggadah.

Why did our invitees respond so readily and warmly? I think it’s because many expect Jewish tradition, so ancient, so rich, to have something wonderful to say, and they’re right. It does. A model seder never fails to impress.

But what of our real seders? Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth, like us, are having to grapple with Covid 19. When I was in Singapore and Hong Kong back in February, the shape of things to come was only just starting to emerge. People there are used to the restrictions we are only now getting our heads around. India, with over a billion people, as yet has only a few cases, but if the pandemic takes hold there, their health service simply can’t manage. Recently, their government imposed a curfew to keep people indoors. But what of the hundreds of thousands – or more – who live on the streets? Here, we still don’t know what to do with our small but persistent band of street dwellers. In India, it’s an established fact of life.

What of the Caribbean islands which rely utterly on tourism to keep their heads above water? (I mean financially. Soon, due to the adverse impact of climate change, many small islands will simply be unable to keep their heads above water literally!) The Jewish communities in the Caribbean are small but long established. Many have got used to communal seders and have lost the habit of domestic practices. What will Pesakh look like to them if they cannot gather? Who will know what to do?

In Africa, most countries are currently hardly touched. But that is unlikely to stay the case. Like India, but more so, their health systems, sometimes very rudimentary, will buckle easily under the strain.

So as we sit in our small Sedarim this year – or even on our own – let’s remember that Pesakh is supposed to finish with us looking to the future, speculating on the coming Messianic Age and what we must do to bring that forward. Spare a thought for the really helpless, the refugees, those trapped in slavery, the homeless who cannot self-isolate. Give thanks as the Seder instructs us – dayenu, count our blessings.

Difficult though it may seem, Pesakh this year will be another opportunity for most of us to remember how lucky we are and concentrate on those who do not share our good fortune – in our own Jewish community, in the wider community around us and in the Commonwealth of Nations of which we are a part.

Hag Sameakh!


About the Author
Clive is CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council
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