Rabbi Hayim Herring typically refrains from using electronic devices during Jewish holy days for religious reasons. But this week he’s among the Jews across Minnesota hosting a Passover Seder on Zoom, or “Zoomover,” inviting 30 family members from across the country to join him and his wife through the iPad next to his table.
How-to-host-seder videos, with titles such as “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Seder,” are hot items on synagogue websites as young adults accustomed to celebrating with extended family suddenly must create their own.
And grocery shopping for specific foods required on the dinner plates has frequently been replaced with borrowing from bags left on friends’ front porches, or even cutting out a picture of the item and setting it on the Seder plate.
Jews across the world will celebrate Passover starting Wednesday night in ways that both test and renew their 2,500-year-old religious tradition. The eight-day celebration marking the Jews’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt, following a series of plagues, holds special significance in this era of the coronavirus.
“We ask, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ ” said Herring, a St. Louis Park author and consultant. “In a normal year, we’re talking about how Passover is different. We don’t eat bread, unleavened food,” he said.
“In the context of COVID-19, it’s different. The family is not around the table. Some people are sick and suffering. There’s a sense of heaviness. However, I hope that part of the answer will include hope and perspective.”
For the Jewish community, Passover is one of the most significant religious observances of the year. The first two nights are a time when extended families gather for a deep and joyful celebration. But this year most Jews, ironically, will be celebrating freedom from inside the confines of their homes.
Jewish leaders predict there will be more Seders this year than any in memory, because so many people are under stay-at-home orders.
With synagogues closed, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association urged the faithful to gather only with people “currently under the same roof.” Many religious leaders accustomed to orchestrating large celebrations in their synagogues are, for the first time, spending a night with immediate family.
“It will be my wife and our four daughters — the first time with just our family,” said Rabbi Max Davis of Darchei Noam synagogue in St. Louis Park. “My entire [Passover] preparation this year has been geared around preparing a Seder for children who are in elementary school and preschool,” Davis said. “It’s challenging me in new and different ways.”
Synagogues are offering online tutorials on everything from Passover music to prayer — and how to make matzo. The Adath Jeshurun Congregation’s video “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Seder” got more than 1,200 hits, and its video titled “How to Host a Seder on Zoom” got more than 80.
Sonya and Jacob Rapport were among the novices checking out online tips. The St. Paul couple is hosting their first Seder this week, as plans to spend it with family were canceled. Instead, they acquired their first Seder plate, which holds symbolic foods eaten or displayed on Passover. They found a new Haggadah — the text recited at the Passover dinner — explained in colorful comic-book graphics. And they created other visuals to enliven the event for at least 20 guests.
That includes jokes like this one: What kind of cheese do you eat for Passover? Answer: Matzo-Rella.
“The fact that it’s the first time hosting — and taking on a big endeavor and [doing] it virtually — will make it more meaningful,” said Sonya Rapport. “A lot of our close friends plan to attend virtually. We haven’t seen them for weeks.”
This year’s Passover has sparked a burst of such creativity and information sharing, said Libby Parker, executive director of TC Jewfolk, an online hub for Jewish community news. Online preparations have become a virtual shtetl, Parker said, referring to small Jewish villages in Eastern Europe.
“I saw somewhere online saying ‘I don’t have horseradish. Can I use hot sauce?’ ” Parker said. “And there’s no way I’m getting a shank bone tonight. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.
“This year things will be very improvised,” she said. “And that’s OK.”
Orthodox or traditional Jews typically have declined virtual Passovers because religious laws prohibit the use of electricity, computers and phones on holidays. But some, such as Herring, are able to get around the restriction by going online before sundown. A relative, who is not observant, will turn off the Zoom connection, he said.
Even with children and grandchildren and other relatives attending his virtual Passover, Herring said, it will not be the same. People have figured out how to be together in new ways, he said. But there will still be an underlying sadness for many.
“The part that is indescribably difficult is not seeing the faces at our physical table,” Herring said. “Not hearing the voices together, not singing traditional tunes …
“But compared to our ancestors and what they endured before, this is about perspective and gratitude.”