Despite COVID-19, American Jews find ways to give thanks on Thanksgiving

Government leaders and health officials have advised against indoor holiday gatherings, even with only one other household.

Diners at the Char Bar in Washington DC. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diners at the Char Bar in Washington DC.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Traditionally, Thanksgiving was an action-packed day for the Chelst family in Washington, DC, beginning with an afternoon of football and extending into a night of socializing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the country, they, like most Americans, experienced a different kind of holiday.
“This year it’s dinner and leaving, that was the compromise,” said Michael Chelst. He plans to eat with his wife, two daughters and at the opposite end of an eight-foot table, his 90-year-old mother-in-law.
“Because she is a fragile age, we planned everything out in advance. She sits down first, one person brings her food, and the rest of us stay at the other end of the long table. We had to weigh the risk of having people together or her not being able to have Thanksgiving. We consulted with doctors and decided it was the right choice as long as we did so carefully,” Chelst told The Jerusalem Post.
Chelst is the owner of Char Bar, Washington, DC’s only kosher meat restaurant. He said that on a typical Thanksgiving the eatery would seat about 180 people. This year, only 15 people reserved spots.
The restaurant has shifted their focus to delivery. Chelst said that to help the community, he waived delivery fees on fresh kosher turkeys. He noted that most families did not order full turkeys this year, but rather were looking to feed small groups.
“We had to adjust our menu from whole turkeys to meals for two to four people,” he continued. “Last year we did about 10 deliveries and they were all for very large orders. This year we’re somewhere around 75 smaller orders.”
Chelst added that his delivery team was prepared going into Thanksgiving because they have already worked through several Jewish holidays in the pandemic. “We’re already in that mindset,” he said.
THANKSGIVING, WHICH is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year in the US, came at a particularly precarious time in the virus surge. More than one million people were diagnosed with COVID between November 5 and 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government leaders and health officials have advised against indoor holiday gatherings, even with only one other household.
With that in mind, some families decided the safest option was to keep the day intimate, inviting no guests.
For American Jews, that antithesis of the family holiday was perhaps easier to adjust to, since they already experienced a constricted Passover and High Holy Day season.
For Laura Shovan, this Thanksgiving is an opportunity to think outside the box. She is planning an at-home version of the popular team building game Escape Room for her husband and two adult daughters, who moved back home at the start of the pandemic.
“I never would have planned something like this if it weren’t for COVID,” said Shovan, who lives in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. “Usually Thanksgiving means we get dressed up, take out the fine china and see extended family. My kids are dealing with fully virtual college and not being with their peers. Everyone is stressed about getting sick. We’ve been telling our kids to just take it easy and I think that should apply to Thanksgiving, too.”
Shovan said her family started observing Shabbat dinner during the pandemic. “That has been a wonderful thing that we will keep post pandemic. With the days flowing together the way they are, having the Friday night ritual has been special,” she continued.
“We’re a transitioning family, my kids are getting older. This might be the last period of time that it’s just the four of us, so it’s nice to take it easy together.”
But the holiday looked bleaker for those infected with the virus.
Evan Wasserman, a 29-year-old medical resident at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, was diagnosed with COVID on November 14. Instead of visiting his parents in Florida like previous years, Wasserman is spending Thanksgiving quarantined in his apartment.
“Rather than being embraced by family and surrounded by comfort food, I’ll join virtually this year. It obviously won’t be the same. It’s not good eating alone while everyone watches from a distance,” Wasserman told the Post.
Wasserman, however, said others have it worse than him.
“At Hartford Hospital, we’re seeing a huge spike in critically ill patients with COVID related issues. It’s so tough because we’re not allowing visitors under any circumstance if you’re COVID positive,” he continued.
“Patients want to see their families and families want to see patients, especially during the holidays. Isolation is impacting their well-being. Of course, if a patient is critically ill, they can’t cater to a special diet so Thanksgiving will just feel like another day in the hospital.”
Wasserman added that spending Passover and Rosh Hashanah unable to travel and without family hasn’t made Thanksgiving alone any easier. “Things will never get less difficult so long as we’re in this circumstance,” he said. “Any time you’re unable to see family when you’re expected to congregate and you’re unable to do so, it’s depressing.”
The isolated holiday inspired some to volunteer.
When the pandemic began, Suzanne Klasfeld got involved with the New York City-based Jewish Association Serving the Aging. Klasfeld, a 22-year-old student at Tulane University, was matched with a senior citizen for weekly phone calls.
“I didn’t want to just sit and do nothing, I want to look back at this weird time and say I helped,” she told the Post.
For Thanksgiving, Klasfeld planned a special call, knowing that her match – a grandmother in the Bronx, would be quarantined on the holiday.
“It’s nice to talk to her and distract her from life in the apartment. I’m glad I’ll be able to wish her a happy Thanksgiving,” said Klasfeld.
Talia Pearl, a social worker in New York City, helped organize a Thanksgiving food and book distribution with the Jewish Child Care Association. She distributed “Thanksgiving kits” including stuffing, pie shells and children’s books to over 50 low-income families in the Bronx hit hard by coronavirus.
“Families can’t be together or with their support systems this year, so we want to make sure that they can at least have food. We’re trying to give them everything but the turkey,” said Pearl.
She noted that much of the community was eager to donate to the initiative, more so than in previous years. “Our local grocery store was very willing to work with us to provide for families. I think that it’s specific to the pandemic that people are much more open to looking for ways to help out.”