Passover and family separation in the time of COVID-19

Passover is normally a time of togetherness, when Jewish families and neighbors come together to celebrate our historical and figurative liberation. However, the current public health crisis will prevent many families from gathering together this year, at least in person. But when caring for our community means staying apart, how do we stay separate without closing ourselves off from our neighbors?

The COVID pandemic has laid bare some of the longstanding inequalities in our society, which are being exacerbated by the policies of the current administration. But more broadly, this moment has made it clearer than ever how interconnected we are -- and how policies that hurt some of us hurt all of us. Many Jewish Americans haven’t been personally affected by the Trump administration’s family separation policies and travel bans, which have kept so many families apart for far too long. However, this time of social distancing is a reminder of what it’s like to not be able to be with our families and care for them when they need us the most. 

Family separation has sadly long been a part of the diverse history of Jewish people. Over centuries and millennia, Jewish families have been scapegoated, denied entry, forced to flee, detained, and enslaved. Whether our families have stories of our ancestors passing the Statue of Liberty to come to the U.S., stories of surviving slavery and persecution in the U.S., or other stories of fleeing and fighting for our lives, all Jewish Americans share a central narrative of exodus and liberation. This history is even more meaningful during Passover, whose story of exodus from Egypt is the archetype of the liberation narrative for much of the world.

But as the pandemic rages around us, those of us with some degrees of privilege are waking up to being newly unsafe in ways that many in this country have felt all along. We are reminded that some of the workers we deem most essential are paid the least. Many families left behind by the economy were already struggling before this crisis. Many immigrant families were already fighting to be included, despite serving in essential roles. Millions of immigrants were left out in the recent health care and economic relief package because of their citizenship status, which will have disastrous consequences for public health as well as economic recovery. Trump’s “me first” doctrine ignores the obvious interconnections of our society: coronavirus does not discriminate, and neither should our response.

Our society shouldn’t require the experience of a pandemic to recognize that we are all connected, but we are being reminded of this fact even so. In this moment, as we experience mass quarantine, we have a choice between division and unity -- between distrust and cooperation. Will our quarantine in our homes be one of separating ourselves from our neighbors, with suspicion, distrust, and the impulse to “go it alone?” Or can we quarantine out of the impulse of love, caring and concern for our neighbors and the wider community? The Passover narrative shows us that our only choice in this moment is togetherness -- figuratively, if not physically. Each act of social distancing is an act of love, and each act of isolation a powerful commitment to one’s community.

In the Exodus story, the Israelites were required to pass through the wilderness after leaving Egypt in order to establish their identity as a people and create a thriving new society from the chains of bondage. If we pass through the wilderness of this crisis by sticking together, we have an opportunity to emerge more united than ever and build a brighter and more just future where all of us can thrive.

Stosh Cotler is the Chief Executive Officer of Bend the Arc, with twenty years of leadership experience as an educator, trainer, and organizer within social and economic justice movements.