ROCKFORD — Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the escape of the ancient Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, begins at sundown Wednesday amid challenges posed by the global effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

The extraordinary circumstances, including Gov. JB Pritzker’s directive to Illinoisans to stay at home, have prompted the Jewish community here to alter how Passover, and especially the celebratory Seder meal at its heart, will be observed.

“In terms of practice, the main thing we won’t be able to do is gather in person together,” Rabbi Binah Wing, leader of Rockford's Temple Beth-El, said in an email.

“I know that some families will try to do some version of the Passover Seder with the people in their own house. Others will try and connect virtually with their wider family circle. Temple Beth-El will have some version of a virtual Seder for our Temple family on the 2nd night as we have done in the past. Hopefully, people will give themselves permission to just do what they can without trying to act as if everything is the same as previous years.”

In addition to symbolic foods, the Seder table often is laden with heavy dishes like lamb, brisket or chicken, said Roni Golan, a local artist. Dietary rules restrict the use of grains that can ferment and become leavened.

Golan and his wife, Ronit, have hosted 15 to 20 people for a Seder each Passover for the past several years.

Roni Golan sees a parallel between the plight of the ancient Hebrew people and the COVID-19 crisis of today.

“It’s funny because we are now in some sort of bondage in our houses. We cannot leave, or it is recommended that we not leave,” Golan said. “I would like to think that the minute this thing is over, we will all feel like we are getting out of bondage in a way. In a weird way, this kind of multiplies the feeling of being oppressed and then getting out to freedom.”

Unlike many Jewish holidays, Wing said, "Passover takes place in the home, which in Judaism is sometimes called a 'mikdash me’at,' which means 'small sanctuary.' The idea is that our homes can be holy spaces as well."

Even difficult circumstances offer great opportunities, Golan said, and this period of self-isolation has provided us with the gift of time.

“Come out of it better than you came into it,” he said. “Reinvent yourself. Enjoy the time with your family. Do the things that you promised yourself you would do year-round and you didn’t. Now you have the time. Don’t fill up with excuses. Just act.”

Like many faith communities, Temple Beth-El is trying to keep members connected through virtual means. Friday night worship and Shabbat Torah Study groups have been moved online. Its religious education program is adjusting as well to the extraordinary times, Wing said.

“We are not trying to pretend as if everything is normal and we should just do everything exactly the same,” Wing said. “Rather, we are trying to exercise patience and understanding with the changes that surround all of us. And we are praying and hoping that everyone stays healthy and that we can all be together in person again soon.

"At the end of our Seder, we traditionally say, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' This year we may say that as well as 'Next year in person!'"

Ken DeCoster: 815-987-1391; kdecoster@rrstar.com; @DeCosterKen