If an expression of gratitude seems ill-suited for Passover — which remembers the Israelites’ toil under, and exodus from, Egyptian slavery — well, that contradiction is the point.
After a particularly trying year for many people, due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Sentinel asked several members of the local Jewish community how they have reflected on the word dayenu during this Passover week.
Daniel Aronson is rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Achim, having joined the West Keene synagogue last summer. Cantor Kate Judd serves as spiritual leader of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community. And Daniel Mariaschin, a North Swanzey native, is chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith International.
Aronson and Judd responded to The Sentinel’s questions via email; Mariaschin was interviewed by phone.
Dayenu, the idea that “it would have been enough,” is a theme of Passover. What are you grateful for this year, especially given recent hardships caused by the pandemic?
Daniel Aronson: I am grateful that my [wife] Beth, my daughter Katie and I were brought to Keene by forces Divine, human and happenstance. We love the communities we’ve discovered at our places of work, i.e. Keene State College and Congregation Ahavas Achim, and at my daughter’s school and extracurricular activities. We also appreciate the natural beauty around us. Winter was magical with just the right amount of snow adorning the trees, and it was made even more magical by the frequent visits to our birdfeeders by an awesome assortment of hungry feathered neighbors …
I am grateful that our parents have made it through the pandemic in good health and that they have all been fully vaccinated.
I am grateful that my daughter and adult son are thriving in all their endeavors.
I am grateful to be lovingly married to someone who is passionate about making the world a better place for all and who supports me in my efforts to do the same.
Kate Judd: I am deeply grateful that I met a wonderful life partner [Randall Silverman] during this crazy year. I’m also grateful for my wonderful congregation, the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, which has remained vibrant throughout these challenging [times].
Daniel Mariaschin: I would say four things. The first is to be able to read the Passover story in an environment of freedom. There were many times in history when the reading of the story of the Exodus from Egypt was prohibited. To be able to sit at the table and read the story in freedom, about really history’s first example of a movement for freedom, is something I think we have to be grateful for.
The second thing would be gratitude for Zoom. It wasn’t that long ago that we did not have the technical ability to bring people together, even at times in this particular public health crisis … So the ability to work with colleagues over Zoom, to be together with friends … and also to have friends and family at seder. One of our seders was with family in Israel, so we were able to bring everybody together …
The third thing is being thankful for the researchers who produced these vaccines. We need them … It’s essential to getting everybody back up to speed. But it’s also very easy to take certain things for granted, and the people who worked so hard and so quickly to produce this vaccine is something that we always could remember and take note of.
The fourth thing for me, as one who works in a Jewish community and who supports an Israel which is at peace with its neighbors, we were very pleased back in September to have had the Abraham Accords — the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Sudan and [later] Morocco. These are extremely important, giant steps toward peace in the region and is something that we’re grateful for, but that we would like to see continue and expand to other countries, as well.
Has the pandemic made it more difficult to connect with family and friends for Passover this year? If so, how did you observe?
Aronson: The pandemic has challenged us to celebrate all kinds of events with our families and communities in creative ways. As such, I’ve found, we’ve been able to connect in ways that allow more people to come together than usual, that invite the inclusion of creative elements in our celebrations that we might not have considered under “normal” circumstances, and that break us free from the complacency that can dampen our joy and gratitude.
Last year, from our home in Houston, TX, my family and I joined my parents, siblings and their families by Zoom for a seder, the home-based ritual meal that commemorates the exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ liberation from slavery. It was the first time in decades that we had all been together to celebrate Passover …
This year, having thrown myself into creating what I hope was a joyful and meaningful online seder for the [Congregation Ahavas Achim] community, I didn’t have the energy to replicate last year’s family seder. Beth, Katie and I had a small seder at home and were joined by my son Jake, who Zoomed in “virtually” from Denver. Though I missed the excitement of last year’s family reunion, this year’s seder was no less special; the intimacy of the experience enhanced my sense of gratitude for my children and my spouse.
On the following night, I was thankful for the opportunity to come together with about 40 people from our CAA family. I included in the seder a video of our religious school children reciting one of the central pieces of the seder, known as the Four Questions … I also included two music videos of traditional Passover songs prepared especially for the seder by super talented congregants, Rebecca Sayles and Eleanor Kaufman, respectively. It took a lot of work for Rebecca, Eleanor, and the children and their families to send me videos on relatively short notice, but I think the whole congregation was extremely grateful not only for their effort but for how they lifted up all of our spirits.
Judd: Most of my family is in Israel. Last year I had to return from Israel before observing Passover with them. This year, because of current medical challenges, I was unable to celebrate Passover. I said a blessing over some matzah, and sang a verse of Avadim Hayinu — “Last year we were slaves, now we are free people.” I hope we are all freed from COVID restrictions soon!
Mariaschin: I have two sisters and their families who live [in Israel]. My wife is Israeli, and her family is there. We normally go over for the holiday. So the distance, even with Zoom, could be felt because you really want to be with family. This is a family holiday. Passover, some people say, is the most observed holiday in the Jewish community. We missed something this year by not being there, but having Zoom made it a lot closer and a lot easier.
The seder typically ends with everyone saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” What do you hope Passover looks like in 2022?
Aronson: At the end of our seders, we all said, “Next year in-person.” I pray that we are all well enough to make that happen in [Hebrew year] 5782/2022. Also, I pray that our seders happen against a backdrop of a world in harmony with itself, a world in which loving kindness, civility and justice in all its forms prevail. That is what “shalom” (peace and wholeness) looks like and that is the true meaning of “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Judd: Wherever I am, I hope I am celebrating with real live people!
Mariaschin: I hope, certainly, that the pandemic is behind us. That we can observe this holiday not only around the table, but that we can go out and not have to worry about all of the conditions and restrictions that we’ve been facing over the past year. Certainly, we want very much … a year of peace for Israel together with its neighbors …
The holiday story that we have is thousands of years old, but the basic message of this holiday remains the same. It doesn’t wax and wane with history … [It is] freedom to be able to express one’s thoughts, one’s ideas, freedom of speech — all the freedoms that we enjoy. When you think about how far ahead of their time the ancient Israelites were under the leadership of Moses, in aspiring to that kind of freedom and to wander for 40 years in the desert in order to get it. It’ll be good to be back to normal, but the story, of course, remains the same, and we look forward to reading the story again next year.