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How to Hold a Virtual Seder This Passover

A rabbi on the need for Zoom, humor and patience during pandemic seders


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

During Passover seders across America on Wednesday night April 8 and Thursday night April 9 — the ritual meals with the ritual script called the Hagaddah — there’s a moment where someone asks: Why is this night different from all another nights? Well, this year, another question many Jews will be asking themselves will be: Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers? And the answer, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic.

Normally, Jewish families gather around seder tables in their homes sharing the Biblical story of coming out of Egyptian slavery and the journey toward freedom.  But this year, it’s not safe for us to host, or be guests in, those seders. Yet Passover is too important to skip; it’s the foundation of our Jewish identity.

So, we will celebrate Passover, but in a different way (and for some of us on different nights.) In 2020, many of us will be choosing physical distancing, but social and spiritual connecting… through virtual seders. Here’s how to hold one:

What You’ll Need for a Virtual Seder

There are three key things you’ll need:

1. A social-sharing video platform like Zoom, for computers, tablets and smartphones (Zoom has a time limit for its free version; but no time limit on its paid version)

2. A sense of humor

3. Patience

How to Prepare for the Virtual Seder

For your virtual seder, first, focus on its purpose: to tell the story in a way it can be heard and understood. How can you best achieve this given who your guests will be? Family? Kids? Parents? Friends ? People you know who are alone and would really appreciate being included?

In the Biblical story of Passover, there were 10 plagues. As host, you might want to plan to ask your guests how they think about plagues now.

Next, choose your haggadah and determine how you’ll lead the seder. Check out the resources on Haggadot.com, from the Custom & Craft Jewish Rituals charity, and Seder2020.org, powered by the nonprofit OneTable. Each has haggadot you can download for free (or even better, with a donation to help them in their work.)

A helpful tip: You don’t have to read every word of the hagaddah during the seder. Think of it as a script with stage directions. Your job is to  encourage interaction and creativity.

Send an email invitation with the time and date (keeping in mind differences in participants’ time zones) and what your guests need to do in advance.  Among the expectations might be: Create a seder plate with ritual foods, especially the unleavened bread, known as matzah. And charoset, a mixture of apples and nuts. Or maybe just an apple and some nuts!

If your guests can’t find the other ritual foods like a green vegetable, a shankbone or a beet, a roasted egg and bitter herbs, you can suggest they find a picture instead.

These traditional symbols represent both slavery and freedom. For example, matzah is the bread of slavery, but also the bread of freedom, since the Israelites carried it with them as they fled from Pharaoh. Charoset symbolizes both the mortar the Israelite slaves used to make bricks and the apple trees under which the women seduced their exhausted husbands into an intimacy that led to the birth of the next generation.

This year, at a time when we can’t be together in person, you might want to ask your guests to think of other 2020 symbols of freedom and slavery  — such as computers many of us are spending so much time in front of for work at home and yet are also our lifeline of connection.

What are other symbols of slavery and freedom that remind us our own determination to stand against all oppression? Fair-trade chocolate? Tomatoes representing the farm workers who are so essential to providing food, yet whose working conditions are so dangerous? Olives representing the hope for peace in the Middle East? Front-line workers — first providers,  medical professionals, grocery store clerks and food delivery people who bring us sustenance — with rubber gloves or masks?

In the Biblical story of Passover, there were 10 plagues. As host, you might want to plan to ask your guests how they think about plagues now.

And you might prepare to ask your virtual seder group a question before singing the Passover song Dayenu, which challenges us to think about when we can say “whatever is, it is enough.” The question: What are we grateful for at this difficult time?

Planning for Eating the Passover Meal

This is probably the trickiest part of a virtual seder.

If many of your guests will be alone at home, you might want to keep the Zoom connection on as they eat. Or, if there are too many to have a conversation, put them in breakout rooms as they eat their meals.

This year, you might do a virtual hunt for the afikomen, asking younger guests to find certain objects in their homes.

Alternatively, you might want to finish the seder before the meal and turn off the screens while everyone eats.

At the Seder Itself

As your virtual seder begins, welcome your guests and let them check in with each other. Here, too, you may need to divide up a large, geographically diverse group into smaller breakout rooms for quick check-ins.

Involve your guests in the telling of the story. Call on them to read or reinterpret parts of the hagaddah. Encourage playfulness. The seder should be fun!

Encourage singing. It’s true; singing in a virtual gathering is difficult. So, have one person lead and mute the others who can sing along at home. Find Passovers songs on YouTube and share them.

Remember to ask a younger guest to sing what are known as the Four Questions.

Enjoy the four cups of wine (for those who can).

The seder meal traditionally ends with a search by children for the afikomen, a piece of the ritual matzah that was hidden during the meal. Often the finder gets a reward. This year, you might do a virtual hunt for the afikomen, asking younger guests to find certain objects in their homes — for instance, something shiny, something old or something that can make a sound. Parents of those children could provide them with a gift.

Or maybe this is the year to instead asks all your guests to make a contribution to a charity of their choice as a demonstration of the journey from slavery to freedom.

Finally, please invite everyone to wash their hands, which is not just important because of the pandemic but because it’s part of the Passover experience. A traditional seder includes washing our hands twice, once without a blessing and then, before that first bite of matzah, with a blessing.

This year, the traditional blessing  thanking the Source of all life, feels particularly powerful. We wash our hands often, and we lift our hands instead of touching other people’s hands, grateful to the hands of all those whose labor and care are keeping us safe.

May your Passover be liberating… and may all of you stay safe.

By Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Laura Geller, a Next Avenue Influencer In Aging, is Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif. and co-editor of Getting Good at Getting Older.

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