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Sonoma County Jews go online to bring families together for Passover

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At sundown on Wednesday, Ann DuBay and Jeremy Olsan of Santa Rosa, like millions of Jews around the world, will sit down for dinner celebrating one of their faith’s most popular holidays, a ritual Passover feast that commands participants to relax, pray, sing and drink four glasses of wine.

It has historically been an occasion for families to gather, and the DuBay-Olsan clan numbers at least 30 relatives: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins hailing from Southern California, the Bay Area and Oregon.

But the strictures of the coronavirus pandemic — curbing travel and even familial crowding — have put the kibosh on age-old tradition, creating a gulf that can only be spanned by the internet.

So when DuBay and Olsan sit down for their candlelit dinner ­— their Seder — they’ll do so alone in the cramped trailer on the lot where their home in the Mayacamas Mountains is being rebuilt in the wake of the Tubbs fire. They will bond with the usual band of relatives on a laptop computer via Zoom, the video platform gaining popularity for business and social connections.

“It is going to be a little bit of pandemonium,” said Olsan, an attorney who is using Zoom to replace conference phone calls for business negotiations. DuBay has used it for conferences in her job as a manager and spokeswoman for Sonoma Water.

Olsan’s cousin, Rabbi Leah Malmon Lewis of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, will conduct the service.

Rabbis, pastors and priests in Sonoma County have likewise been using Zoom to connect with their congregations and plan for Passover, which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The age-old holiday this year comes under compelling modern circumstances.

Conducted according to a Jewish text called the Haggadah, a Seder includes dipping a finger into wine and spilling a drop on a plate while calling out the Hebrew name for the 10 plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians, which ultimately convinced the pharaoh to let Moses and his people go.

“This year we’re going to take out an 11th drop to acknowledge today’s plague,” said Rabbi Steve Finley of Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma.

The Hebrew word for Egypt means “narrow place,” relating to the confinement of slavery, he said.

“In each generation we are supposed to feel (at Passover) as if we just left Egypt,” Finley said. “This year it might be easier feeling our narrow place now confined by a plague.”

The tenth and final plague on Egypt was the death of every firstborn son, and God, according to the book of Exodus, commanded Moses to tell the Israelites to mark lamb’s blood over their doors so death would pass over them.

At Passover, Jews are spiritually in Egypt, “participating in the Exodus,” said Rabbi Ted Feldman of the B’nai Jewish Center in Petaluma.

During the Holocaust, Jews gathered secretly to celebrate Passover in their homes in the ghettos of Europe under Nazi domination, he said.

“Today Jews are confined by coronavirus,” Feldman said. “In this sense it is safe for everybody inside.”

Worldwide on Tuesday, there were more than 1.4 million cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and more than 81,000 deaths, but officials were saying that social distancing appeared to have slowed the pandemic in some places.

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Feldman and Finley are both preparing to lead Seders via Zoom on Thursday night, the second of eight nights of the holiday. Olsan, a former president of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, and DuBay will participate in the congregation’s virtual Seder Friday night.

For Shir Shalom’s online-linked celebration, Finley is scripting parts of the Haggadah reading to members of the congregation, just as families typically do at home.

“It’s a great holiday with great community,” he said. “We’re going to try to create that virtually.”

Finley noted that about 70% of American Jews celebrate Passover, compared to about half who fast during Yom Kipper, a solemn holiday known as the Day of Atonement.

Feldman has scheduled a virtual Seder covering the pre-meal portion of the Haggadah and using a text with colorful, whimsical illustrations he said are “appropriate for the times we live in.”

Feldman said he has no idea how many people will join the Zoom broadcast, but said he has the capacity for 100 participants.

Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky of the Chabad Jewish Center in Santa Rosa lamented that the congregation’s 18th community Seder can’t be held in the new sanctuary that opened last fall. The event drew 150 people the past two years, held at the Flamingo Hotel.

Instead of a virtual Seder, Wolvovsky said he is preparing packages including handmade matzos imported from Israel, a Seder plate, Haggadah and anything else requested by a family for a “meaningful and joyful” celebration.

Like the other rabbis, Wolvovsky underscored the goal of connecting the ancient tradition to modern times.

“Wherever we are today we want to be in a better place tomorrow,” he said. “Each and every day we strive for a minor Exodus.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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