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Coming together for virtual festivities

When much of the world was forced to go online to stay connected, so too were many significant religious celebrations.

Auckland’s Rachel Zussman, 27, reflects on a year that impacted three major Jewish celebrations.

During New Zealand’s first lockdown earlier this year, Rachel and her family were observing passover but without some of their loved ones.

“That one is not so much about going to synagogue but having a meal together as a family,” says Rachel.

“It’s an event where you would get together with family, so it was a big one for people to be missing out on.”

Rachel typically celebrates passover with her extended family and friends. For Rachel, the passover seder (feast) is one of her favourite Jewish rituals. So it was hard not to have some of her beloved friends and family sitting around the dinner table to share it with.

“That was the hardest – not having everyone together. I really didn’t think passover was going to be the same at all.”

To mark the occasion with their family outside of their own bubble, Rachel and her family got everyone together over Zoom.

“It was hectic,” says Rachel.

“We also contacted my grandparents in England – it was nice to connect.”

When Auckland was thrust into lockdown once more, Rachel’s Jewish congregation was forced to rethink how they would mark another major holiday; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“We had to replan everything to fit around the rules.”

Rachel says her progressive synagogue, Beth Shalom, conducted two services over Zoom, in place of synagogue rituals.

As a service leader, Rachel was part of the socially distant and virtual proceedings in the synagogue.

Rachel was masked and had just ten other people socially distanced with her.

“You need 10 people to read from the Torah – so we were there in masks. It’s certainly strange to be doing that and having just 12 people in the room.”

“But I got over the strangeness and it was actually very pleasant. There was a real feeling of support – you can make a couple of mistakes and everyone rolls with it. Everyone was going through the service together in a new way.”

As other countries around the world now inch closer to celebrating Christmas in lockdown, Rachel has some sound advice on how to stay connected and mark the holiday.

“Schedule a time to Facetime or Zoom family but allow yourself to have time away from that too,” she says.

Celebrating the Jewish holidays while in lockdown has been an experience that has made Rachel appreciate what each holiday stands for.

“We were able to have substantial holidays and that came from just trying to capture the essence of them. We were able to relax a little bit and make it work under the circumstances we were in.”

“My advice to anyone this Christmas is to look for what you find meaningful in that holiday and try to capture that in whatever way you can.”

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