Each year at Passover, Jewish people around the world ask an age-old question: Why is tonight different from all other nights? But in 2020, the holiday will be different not just from other nights, but also other years — due to the coronavirus.
Passover, which begins in 2020 after sundown on April 8, commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt with a ritual meal, the seder, that includes a number of symbolic components and courses, with prayers woven throughout. While the fall High Holy Days require congregants to meet at synagogues for services, and festive Hanukkah encourages participants to play a game of dreidel with family, Passover speaks particularly to community and resilience: it’s the annual feast that outlines a message of shared history and collective action, and one of the religion’s primary events of observance. But with public health and religious leaders discouraging travel and group gathering due to the coronavirus, the usual plans must be laid aside.
Such is the case for Manhasset, N.Y.-based attorney Hilary Firestone and her family. It will be the first time that it’s just her, her husband and their daughter at the seder table — not the 25 or more guests they normally host at multiple dinners during the course of the eight-day spring religious holiday. Her two sons, her parents and her husband’s parents? They won’t be there to taste the potato latkes she makes each year, or help search for the afikomen; they’re sheltering in their own homes because of stay-in-place orders predicated by the coronavirus. But with the addition of some laptops, iPads and phones on the table, the whole family is still planning to celebrate together. And this year the table will virtually expand, as they include relatives many states away who rarely join in their annual tradition.
They’re not alone. Brooklyn Jews, a youth-oriented organization based in New York, has arranged for their own annual seder — originally set to be held at a hip restaurant for a small group — to be hosted on Zoom; they’re expecting as many as 75 people to tune in. OneTable, an online organizing group that helps coordinate grassroots Shabbat dinners and holiday gatherings around the country, has over 300 official seders registered on their sites hosted by people in 20 cities, and has released a guide and launched a special website just to cater to virtual Passovers. (Of special note: renewed focus on hand-washing.)
Ironically, for some, travel bans and restrictions mean Passover will be in some ways more connected, accessible and meaningful than ever. “We’ll do what we can,” Firestone said. “It’s a good time to see what’s really meaningful and what really matters. People matter. We want to connect. This is just another way.”
With the holiday’s focus on liberation from Egypt or “Mitzrayim,” people are finding new meaning in the holiday, too; “mitzrayim” translates roughly as the “narrow place.” “Trying to find spaciousness and freedom within a narrow place: that will resonate very much this year,” Eliza Scheffler, rabbinic intern at Brooklyn Jews, told TIME.
Not every Jewish leader is on board with virtual potential, however. Some of Israel’s chief rabbis have ruled out videoconferencing as a replacement for in-person gathering, instead suggesting more solitary seders while keeping technology off the table. But other rabbis have defected from that stance, making it an ongoing topic of discussion.
For those willing to accept Zoom, however, the advice is to plan ahead. “I see myself this year as an emcee,” Scheffler said about the scheduled Zoom dinner. “We’ll try to do some ‘read together’ — but on mute. Or maybe a cacophonous ‘Dayenu’ when we’re off mute!” (“Dayenu” is the holiday’s most festive — and best-known — song. Aliza Kline, CEO of OneTable, agreed: “If you can, ask each person to prepare something so they feel a sense of ownership. Practice in advance; do a dry run; learn how to use the mute function,” she said. “And encourage people to have the props at their table, so everybody can strike a match and light a candle, so everybody can have the wine. One of the reasons Passover is so powerful is because it’s so visceral. You can taste it, smell it, touch it. Something that makes it as three-dimensional as possible makes a big difference.” Firestone, for instance, is planning on shipping packages of matzo to her sons, and might send copies of the family Haggadah, the text that accompanies the seder, as well. (Luckily, she bought matzo well in advance.)
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For those who don’t usually celebrate at their own home, the socially distant holiday may require a different kind of shift. “Some people come to Jewish organizations for their Judaism and don’t necessarily feel empowered to create Judaism in their own homes,” Scheffler said. But this time, they’ll need to take a more active role. “I think it will be especially meaningful. Judaism isn’t just some formal seder run by a separate organization. It’s also making a matzo ball, and figuring out what qualifies as a spring vegetable,” one of the components of the traditional seder plate.
With grocery shopping limited — one member of Firestone’s family is scouting the grocery store every few weeks, for instance — creativity will come into play, too. Maybe hot sauce will have to substitute for “maror,” or bitter herbs. Maybe we’ll be making homemade matzo, or ordering Passover delivery. Or maybe not; with supply chains stretched by lockdowns and panic buying, some items will be difficult to access, if not impossible.
A virtual Passover can also a boon for accessibility for some. “When you have limited physical space you have to make some tough decisions about who’s invited, but when you have unlimited digital space you can simply reframe it,” Kline said. “That for me is what it took to get me excited about it. Last night it just occurred to me that while I won’t be at that table with my parents and cousins and siblings, I can also include my cousins who live many states away and friends from all over.” As we’re all learning in the process of home isolation, distances and physical limitations collapse when virtual communication is the norm. And it means that people can participate in a number of different seder experiences. Scheffler says her family members have already been “shul-hopping” on Friday nights for remote Sabbath services with various Jewish communities. Firestone and her family will be part of multiple seders.
Some things, though, will stay the same. For Firestone, the dinner has always been led by women — an important tradition that honors her family’s matriarchs. Passover is her favorite holiday, because it asks for introspection and reminds us that we’re part of a larger whole.
“Ritual grounds us,” Kline said. “It connects us to something much bigger than ourselves. That humility can be a tremendous blessing, especially in such a frightening time as this. What’s amazing about the annual seder or weekly Shabbat service or Sunday church service or the Ramadan celebration is that we’re doing it together, and we yield to the ritual. When religion is at its best, that’s what it does: it brings us together.”
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