In the Great Synagogue of Sophia, Bulgaria in better times
In Israel, with most of the country vaccinated, and in large chareidi communities in the US (for various reasons), life is recovering a semblance of normalcy. But in most of Europe this is far from the case. There are strict curfews in many areas. This is a rundown on the situation in some communities.
Georgia: Usually People Make Private Sedorim
The Rabbi of Georgia, Rav Elimelech Rosenblatt, the rav of Beit Knesset Tiferes Tzvi, who also runs schools and charitable organizations, tells Yated:
"Usually the majority of the community makes its own seder at home. Up until this year there was also a small community seder in a restaurant that was specially kashered. Understandably this will not happen this year.
"With regard to Pesach products from Israel, this is a problem this year since there are no flights. However matzos and wine are ordered way in advance and are shipped by boat so they will not be a problem. Meat comes from a local shechita and fruits, vegetables and eggs are also produced locally. So we are ok with basic food for the yom tov."
What is the situation with Covid vaccines
There hardly any vaccinations around. The only ones who were vaccinated are medical personnel. Some restrictions were lifted as the levels decreased, but nothing has been announced about further vaccinations.
Bulgaria: They Hope They are Allowed a Minyan in the Shul
We spoke with the Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria, HaRav Yoel Yifrach. His community numbers about 4,000, including about 1,000 in the capital city of Sofia.
"Next week we are entering a big lockdown of the entire economy, unlike you in Israel who already see the end. We are still deep in the middle of the storm. Hardly any people are vaccinated here. And the only vaccinations that were imported are those of Astrazeneca whose use is currently suspended here.
"For obvious reasons the big Seder that we usually run for about 300 will not be held this year. We usually hold it in a very posh hall. We already knew that we could not do it this year. We are just trying to be allowed to hold davening in the shul. For now it seems that they will allow no more than 15 mispallelim. We are talking about the second largest shul in the Balkans that has seating for 1,170."
The Synagogue of Belgrade
Serbia: Logistical Problems
The Chief Rabbi of Serbia, HaRav Yitzchak Asial, tells us that the situation is grim.
"Just now a new lockdown began, and upset all our Pesach plans. Everyone will have to make a seder at home with just his immediate family. So far we have not even gotten the matzos since they were sent via Germany, and they have not found a driver for the truck to bring them to us. More than 50 percent of the truck drivers are Corona positive.
"We will have a very hard time distributing all the Pesach supplies to the outlying communities. Shiurim and drashos we delivered virtually, to more than 4,000 listeners from all over Serbia."
Salonika: The Lockdown Upset all the Plans
Salonika is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, tracing its history some 2,000 years. It flourished until the Holocaust, when most of it was wiped out. It used to be called "the Jerusalem of the Balkans" because of the large number of talmidei chachomim who lived there. HaRav Aharon Yisrael:
"First of all an interesting detail: Albert Burla, the CEO of Pfizer, grew up in the Jewish community of Salonika, a fact of which he is proud and mentions often. Besiyata deShmaya he was able to help Israel and he also tried to help us. Because of international agreements he was not able to send us vaccines.
"For a long time we have been in a lockdown. Until 9 p.m. one may go out for good reasons, but after 9 there is almost a compete lockdown. We usually have a central seder for around 500, but not this year. We are trying to help everyone do it at home."
Yeshivish Moscow: A Seder as Usual
HaRav Moshe Lebel, rabbinical administrator of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and rosh yeshiva of Toras Chaim in Moscow told us:
"Our community has two parts: the chareidi community including yeshiva graduates, and families who are in kiruv. The chareidi families usually make their own seder and we encourage that. The kiruv families are in a real crisis.
One of the major milestones in kiruv is the seder since we do not stop at giving out matzos and wine and singing. We really go into things and lay the foundations for a strong emunah. What we can accomplish in a Jewish heart on a night like this, many months of talking will not succeed.
"Corona is hitting Russia with its full force. Many are skeptical of the Russian vaccine Sputnik and they do not get vaccinated. We tried to encourage everyone to take it but were not very successful.
"The authorities are not enforcing and Corona limitations. Everything is open as usual. But we do not want to take any unnecessary risks. People succumb to the virus all the time. Therefore we have made the painful decision not to have our usual Seder. It was our decision.
"We are comforted by the fact that they yeshiva, Toras Chaim, has been able to continue throughout. It is located outside of Moscow in a very isolated location. Thus we were fortunate that the Kol Torah and the tefillah did not stop at all."
HaRav Levin speaking
Paris: Kosher Shechitah
HaRav Moshe Levin is the vice president of the CER and the rov of the DeRancy area, and is also the right-hand man of the Chief Rabbi of France, HaRav Chaim Korsia. This year Pesach will be celebrated within a lockdown imposed because of the third wave of pandemic infections, Still, the community is in much better shape than last year.
"Last year there was a big shortage of meat since 12 shochtim came down with Corona and the rest could not get here because of the lockdown. This year there are no shortages. The Chief Rabbi even met with the Agriculture Minister after the ban on shechita in Belgium. As a result the French government did not insist on specially marking it as "slaughtered."
"Last year we had a big problem since there were so many who dies from Corona and we were not able to take them for burial during the two days of Pesach. That allowed the management of the hospitals to try to send the deceased for cremation, R"l. HaRav Korsia had to get a special dispensation from the Health Minister to avoid this. This year, bechasdei Hashem, the death rate is not so high.
"The night curfew is very strict to there will be not prayers in the evenings on the Chag. During the day one may not go out without identification. In consultation with the gedolei haposkim we were allowed to make special belts that are held together with a plastic copy of our ID which becomes part of the belt buckle.
"Still it is much better than last year when the shuls were completely closed. This year we can have Shacharis and Minchah. Also people were very depressed last year because so many were struck by Corona. Last year we said that only a core family could be present at the Seder. But this year we allowed vaccinated and recovered people to take part.
"A lot of people are vaccinated here. Most got the Pfizer vaccination because they want to be able to visit their relatives in Israel. I have not seen my daughter who lives in Israel for more than a year.
"Because of the antisemitism and radical Islam, most of the younger generations learns in Jewish schools so they know how to make a Seder. Also there is not so much demand for communal Sedorim."
Berlin: Waiting for the New Building
HaRav Moshe Halperin leads the large community that grew up around the yeshiva that operated there until five years ago under the leadership of HaRav Yehoshua Spinner.
"Even when the yeshiva functioned, we used to send the boys home for Pesach. If this was not possible we found other accommodations. Still we have a communal Seder that will not be possible this year.
"Germany is deep in the third wave of the virus. The British mutation seems to be responsible for the big rise in infections. We expect to have another lockdown soon.
"Our good news is that a generous donor took it upon himself to refurbish the old shul of the community. There is a big complex of buildings, but most were wrecks and we had to have many small minyanim for lack of a large space. When the renovations are complete we will have a wonderful space for a large minyan.
HaRav Di Sieni baking the special eruv matzo
Rome: Eruv Chatzeros
HaRav Shmuel Di Sieni, the rov of Rome and vice president of the CER says that very few are allowed to come daven in the giant shul. Every night there is a strict curfew from 10 p.m. and the expectation is that this will continue for a long time.
"I personally was vaccinated since I am also a doctor and medical personnel were vaccinated.
"As every year we bake a special thick matzo that is used for eruv chatzeros. We keep it all year in the shul and on erev Pesach we take it out and throw it into the Tiber River which is right next to the beis knesses, This is a tradition that dates back to times when everyone lived in the ghetto and it was valid for them. We also use it for this shittah of the Maharal that even a shul needs its own eruv.
"The previous rabbi of Rome HaRav Toaf told me fifty years ago that there is a there is a tradition among the Jews of Rome that if someone breaks this matzo he may not live out the year. HaRav Toaf said that two shamashim moved the eruv and broke it and they did not live out the year, lo oleinu, and the community was very moved by that."
HaRav Di Sieni said that he is working on a modern eruv mehudar for the community.