Empty pews: Celebrating Easter and Passover during a pandemic

Christian and Jewish students find ways to stay connected to their religious communities, at home and in Lexington


Lee Bernstein, ‘20, has taken the opportunity with staying in Lexington for Passover to call extended family and cook her own kosher food for seder.

Hannah Denham

Easter and Passover looked a little different this year.

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, religious congregations rely on virtual programs like Facebook Live and Zoom to continue meeting.

For Christian and Jewish members of Washington and Lee University, the two-week recess in classes as the university transitioned online meant that finals week would no longer start during Holy Week and Passover. Some students are away from their families and home congregations for the first time; others are spending more time with family than usual, even if it’s through a video chat.

Lee Bernstein, ‘20, is staying in her house in Lexington for the time being. She’s not usually home for Passover, anyway, so this year hasn’t felt too different — except that she’s found she’s actually talking more with her extended family than she usually does during the holiday and they were able to share a seder meal together.

“People don’t usually Zoom holidays in regular times,” she said. “I’ve been able to be a part of my family more than usual.”

Her mom mailed her a kosher care package from Massachusetts: two boxes of matzah, one box of matzah ball mix, candy, coffee cake mix and brownie mix. And Maggie Shapiro Haskett, director of Jewish life, dropped off a Walmart delivery of kosher food for seder.

Since she’s staying home, Bernstein said, she’s been exclusively cooking for herself, instead of eating at D-hall and having to worry if the oil and other ingredients in her food are kosher. Bernstein is an Ashkenzai Jew, which involves following specific food restrictions during Passover, such as no grain or leavened bread, or anything that resembles corn or legumes.

“A lot of it is the meaning you put behind it. It’s not about doing things perfectly,” Bernstein said. “If anything, maybe this will make people’s Passovers more meaningful.”

Washington and Lee’s Hillel hosts a Passover seder each year that’s open to the community, regardless of the academic calendar and whether or not the holiday falls on spring break.

This year, Maggie Shapiro Haskett hosted a seder from home with her family and invited students to join on Zoom on Wednesday, April 8. They used a concise haggadah, the prayer book that details the seder ritual, by Lab/Shul available online and specifically addressed the pandemic.

“This year, finding kosher for Passover food locally was even more of a challenge so I wound up making matzah deliveries early last week and helped students who are still in town get the food they needed,” Shapiro Haskett said.

Seder at home for Sam Bluestone, ‘22. Photo courtesy of Sam Bluestone.

Sam Bluestone, ‘22, celebrated Passover at home by sharing a seder meal with his parents and sister in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He’s usually on campus during Passover and attends the Hillel seder, but Bluestone was especially looking forward to doing so this year — the new undergraduate leadership for the Hillel board was going to be announced, and he’s the incoming president for 2020-21. 

Bluestone said he’s grateful for the virtual programming through Hillel, such as Tuesday Schmoozeday and the Jewish Learning Fellowship discussion group.

“[Shapiro Haskett is] still working incredibly hard to make sure that Hillel is providing engaging, safe, inclusive programming for Jewish and non-Jewish students in the W&L community, even when we’re not on campus,” Bluestone said. “She’s my Jewish mom away from home and she deserves a lot of props.”

Seder for Becca Telese, ‘20, who shared the meal that marks the first night of Passover with her roommates in Lexington. Photo courtesy of Becca Telese.

Becca Telese, ‘20, led the seder meal for the first time in her life this Passover for her five non-Jewish roommates in Lexington. “It was more enjoyable than I thought it could have been, having Passover in quarantine.”

She found a haggadah online and sent it to her roommates, so they could all follow along during the seder meal with their phones.

“It was nice to see it through their eyes,” Telese said. “They had questions about it and things that made me think more about it, which made it more meaningful.”

For Emma Duerstock, ‘21, who is the music minister for Catholic Campus Ministry, Easter this year is really difficult. She’s home with her family in Union, Kentucky for the first time since she left for college, and they’ve been attending Mass virtually for several weeks.

Emma Duerstock, ‘21 (right) and her brother pose for an Easter photo. Duerstock wore her Fancy Dress dress for at-home Mass. Photo courtesy of Emma Duerstock.

“We believe the body and the blood of Christ is the true presence of God,” Duerstock said. “Not having the opportunity to have the full ness of God within you is heartbreaking. Watching it on a TV screen just doesn’t compare. It’s really sad, especially for Easter.”

Usually, she picks out the music and sings during Easter Mass at St. Patrick’s. Music ministry is something she’s been involved with since she was six years old, and she hopes to continue, both personally and professionally. But this year, Duerstock attended Mass on Sunday morning from her living room with her parents and younger brother, and they haven’t found a way to replace the traditions of confession and taking Holy Communion.

“I feel very silly standing, sitting and kneeling in my living room when Jesus isn’t there,” she said.

Kit Lombard, ‘23, planned to be confirmed by St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Lexington this year on Easter weekend. His mom was planning to drive to Lexington from their home in Bel Air, Maryland just for the occasion.

But for now, his confirmation is postponed until at least June, when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said the state lockdown will be lifted.

“This Easter was going to be a very big holiday,” Lombard said. “Confirmation is the last step before you’re fully acknowledged by the Catholic Church and Vatican City. It would’ve been a huge milestone and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out, but I understand why we had to go home.”

Lombard grew up Catholic, but grew in his faith more through his Catholic school and less through his family’s practice. He’s been attending online Mass on his own during Holy Week through the Archbishop of Richmond, because St. Patrick’s has had some technical difficulties.

On Sunday, he celebrated Easter by taking a break from homework to go outside for a walk and make dinner. He has a quiz due on Monday, but he asked his professor for a religious accommodation to take it a few hours later.

Once Lombard got on campus, he was grateful to plug in with Catholic Campus Ministry, which continues to have virtual meetings on Zoom, and St. Patrick’s. Every Friday night, he’d make the walk to the church to do the stations of the cross. He finds himself missing that community now.

“It’s not as special, but as long as I think about it and keep it in my mind that it’s Easter, I think the purpose is still there,” Lombard said.

Easter brunch for Marilyn Sample, ‘22, who is home in Decatur, Alabama.
Photo courtesy of Marilyn Sample.

Shapiro Haskett said the purpose of Passover is to remember what it feels like to be oppressed to empathize with others who are oppressed today and to celebrate freedom.

“This year the teachings of the holiday were especially poignant,” she said in an email. “In many ways we’re suffering, but I hope that our virtual seders and the ability to help one another observe a meaningful holiday have underscored how very lucky we are, and will motivate us to even greater empathy towards those who are suffering through this global pandemic much more acutely than we are.”