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Caps fans choose between Passover Seders and Game 5

(John McDonnell / The Washington Post)
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When the Capitals-Flyers playoff schedule was released, Jon Halperin knew right away he would not attend a potential Game 5. That game — the next in this series — would conflict with the first night of Passover, and Halperin had his parents’ Seder to attend. So he offered his two seats to his Verizon Center neighbor, at season ticket holder prices.

Others chose differently. When that same schedule was released, Jeremy Alexander and his family created a provisional Passover plan. If the Caps swept the Flyers in four games — something they had never done in franchise history — their Friday night Seder would go on as planned. If not, Alexander and his father would be at Verizon Center, and the family Seder would move to Saturday night, losing a few attendees who already had other plans for the second night.

“I actually have a rule: unless someone’s in the hospital, I don’t miss a Caps playoff game,” Alexander joked (?) this week. “We just kind of kept both options open. And we admitted how insane we are, but that’s just how we are. We don’t miss Caps playoff games.”

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For the second time in three years, Washington Jewish sports fans (and, ahem, media members) are facing a sticky choice: attend a crucial home playoff game, or follow a religious tradition. (These things were easier back when D.C. teams never made the playoffs.)

In 2014, the second game of the Nats-Giants series — that 18-inning nightmare — coincided with Yom Kippur, leaving many Jewish fans at synagogue or with family during the first nine or 10 innings. This time, the Caps will attempt to clinch the series right around the time many D.C. Jews are beginning their traditional Seder services, a kind of Jewish Thanksgiving meal featuring wine and storytelling and precious few cross-checks, unless Uncle Bernie’s had one too many.

This isn’t the first time the Caps have conflicted with Passover, and it’s hard to know exactly how many fans are facing the choice between Metro and Matzo. Judaism and hockey fandom both are pretty big in Montgomery County, anyhow. And even fans who are staying home will have to figure out how to handle the overlap. My friend Eric Fingerhut — possibly the most dedicated Caps fan I know — will watch the game before and after his parents’ Seder, and will probably take glances at his phone from the table. Becca Henschel, a season ticket holder who writes about the team at Japers Rink, won’t bring her phone, but thinks there will be a TV (on mute) visible from the Seder table. Halperin — who also skipped the Nats playoff game in 2014 — plans to check the score once or twice, but will mostly focus on the religious event.

“I didn’t feel as conflicted about this particular one,” he told me. “If this was the Stanley Cup finals and it was Passover, I’d think about it a little bit more. I’d still go to Seder, but I’d be more conflicted. This is the first round of the playoffs. We’ve been doing this for a while. Either there’s a Game 7, which I hope there’s not, or we play in the next round. I’m not looking at Game 5 as being a monumental game.”

The Caps have played playoff games on Easter Sunday before (don’t ask), and Ted Leonsis famously complained when his Caps played home playoff games on both a Seder night and Easter during the 2003 postseason.

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“I don’t like playing back-to-back games and playing on Passover and Easter and I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said then. “The party is kind of over with my turning the other cheek. We need to be treated with respect.”

But the spring hockey schedule sometimes makes it impossible to avoid the holiday. It’s not just Caps fans facing this choice, either. The Islanders and Panthers — located in two of the country’s most Jewish regions — are also playing a Game 5 Friday night. And there are plenty of Jewish Flyers fans with the same dilemma as Washingtonians. Eric Cohen, a former Flyers season ticket holder, was invited to a Seder hosted by original Flyers season ticket holders. About two dozen people are going, all huge Flyers fans. The host announced this week the start time was moved up to 6, and the schedule would be accelerated.

“I thought about coming down with a terrible head cold, and I thought about the pollen count tripling,” Cohen, 55, joked. “But when we agreed to do the condensed version of the Seder, I thought that that was a good compromise.”

There are plenty of local Jewish media members, if you can believe that, who are weighing work against religion. Some will go to the game, and some will stay away. I told my bosses about a likely conflict before the playoff schedule was even released, because I wanted to be with my wife and daughter and friends. Other fans cited similar concerns.

“I just feel celebrating the holiday and all it entails (carrying on the tradition of one’s ancestors, being with family, etc.) is more important and takes priority over a hockey game, even a playoff hockey game,” wrote Fingerhut, who skipped a Caps-Islanders playoff game for a Seder as a teenager.

“We had my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah for Game 2 of the Caps-Habs series,” wrote Henschel, who hasn’t missed a Caps home playoff game since that 2010 series. “My dad spent the reception giving us updates.”

“A lot of it is really about sharing a family experience,” said Halperin, who also said it was important for him to reflect on the history and problems of past generations. “To not be able to share the [sports] moment with the people I care about most makes it not as great a moment. I would definitely watch the game after Seder is over, but I just am not going to miss the family moment to go to the game. It wouldn’t feel right.”

For others, though, the game is the family moment. Alexander, a 30-year old attorney, goes to Caps games with his father. He goes to his dad’s house to watch road playoff games, and they attend something like 35 home games a year. This is a meaningful bond, too, even if its roots aren’t thousands of years old.

“I think I’m gonna bring a little good luck piece of matzo, to make myself feel better that I’m not the worst Jew in the world,” he joked. “I’m certainly not Sandy Koufax, who skipped the World Series. I’m kind of the opposite of Sandy Koufax. I’m skipping the Seder for a 3-1 series clincher.”

On the other hand, as Alexander pointed out, the brisket his family was making for Friday night will be just fine the following day.

“It’s better leftover, anyway,” he said.