Passover Seders Go Virtual

In this time of social distancing, Jewish congregations and individual congregants turn to Zoom to connect family at the traditional ritual meal.

A traditional Seder plate. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the Jewish calendar, no holiday other than the Sabbath is more closely linked to observance at home than Passover. The weeklong festival begins next Wednesday night, April 8, with the Seder, a meal wrapped around the retelling of the Israelites’s enslavement in ancient Egypt and liberation through divine intervention.

This year there is just one problem. As the Passover Haggadah recounts the Ten Plagues visited upon Pharoah and his people, the world today confronts a plague of its own, COVID-19. Social distancing rules out the traditional gathering of families from far and wide, under one roof, to eat matzo, the bread of affliction, and enact the other rituals of the Seder, which double as a salute to spring.

Even in the grip of the Holocaust, Jews found ways to hold Seders. Had the coronavirus sprang upon the world even just 10 or 15 years ago, the ensuing social isolation would have been even more agonizing than it is today. Fortunately, we live in the age of Zoom. The video-conferencing program, founded with little fanfare in 2010, is suddenly omnipresent and on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Thanks largely to Zoom, Seders this year have gone virtual. Jewish clergy interviewed for this article said they expect large numbers of their congregants to host family Seders on Zoom. Marge Grayson, a member of Temple Ner Tamid, a reform congregation in Bloomfield, said she expects to have “20 different computers hooked into ours, with one to four people per computer. We’ve always had a lot of friends at our Seder. Now we have friends of friends. There’s a hunger out there for it.”

Many clergy will host virtual Seders for their respective communities, and do so from their own homes, surrounded only by immediate family already living with them. Most observant Jewish families have their own Haggadahs, which vary in detail. For his congregational Seder, Cantor Brian Kalver of B’Nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Basking Ridge, said he is “compiling our own PDF Haggadah and emailing it out beforehand, so we’ll all be on the same page.”

(Not all branches of Judaism approve of virtual Seders. In a Q/A on the website of Chabad Lubavitch of Princeton—Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidism—the answer to “Can we do it over the phone or via Skype?” is, “As tempting as it may be, the answer is no. Shabbat and Jewish holidays are a blessed respite from all digital connectivity.”)

Kalver’s congregation is small, about 100 families. Even so, “I’ll have to do something in advance to [assign readings and blessings] and figure out how to signal people that their turn is coming up.”

There’s also a learning curve to pacing a virtual Seder. “It takes awhile for people in different size groups to pass around the parsley and salt water without spilling it on yourself,” he said.

Early in any Seder, the leader breaks a piece of matzo in two, wraps one of the halves in a napkin and sets it aside to be hidden somewhere in the household. This is called the afikoman. It’s nominally dessert, but its interest to every child at the table is that whoever finds it gets a reward of some kind.

How to hide the afikoman in a virtual Seder? Rabbi Marc Katz of Ner Tamid in Bloomfield came up with a clever solution: “A picture of the afikoman will be hidden on one of the pages of the temple website.” When I later mentioned this plan to Cantor Kalver, he responded enthusiastically and said, “Consider it stolen!”

Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun, a Reform temple in Short Hills, is at the large end of the membership scale, with about 1,250 families. B’Nai Jeshurun has three rabbis, two cantors and a cantorial assistant. “All the clergy will contribute to the [community] Seder, each of us in our own homes, with our own families, trying to model physical distancing,” said Karen R. Perolman, the senior associate rabbi. “We’ll divide the parts of the Seder so we can make it as interactive as possible.” She said that people in the congregation “who didn’t know how to use Facebook or our website have become tech savvy in the last couple of weeks.”

At Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue of about 240 families in Marlton, Rabbi Nathan Weiner said, “I think we’re going to be overwhelmed by people. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the congregation signs up.”

Rabbi Perolman also expects a large virtual turnout. “According to a Pew study, something like 85 percent of Jews celebrate Passover in one way or another, maybe 90 percent. More Jews celebrate Passover than any other holiday.”

A beloved part of every Seder is the reciting of the Four Questions, an honor usually given to the youngest child able to handle the task. Each of the four questions asks a variant of the one basic question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

This year, an obvious new answer will hang in the air.

“In a time of great unknown, when we feel so powerless,” said Rabbi Perolman, “returning to the rituals we know, like Passover, can actually feel very settling.”

THE FOODSTUFFS OF PASSOVER

Food is central to many Jewish holidays, but none more so than Passover, in which the religious observance actually takes place around a festive table.

Kayco, based in Bayonne, may not be a household name, but the kosher food and wine brands it distributes certainly are. These include Manischewitz, which Kayco acquired last year, as well as Kedem, Horowitz Margareten, Goodman’s, Rokeach, Mother’s, Yehuda, U-Bet and more.

“It’s the largest supplier of traditional kosher food in the country,” said executive vice president Harold Weiss, who has been with the company 28 years.

Kayco grew out of a small kosher wine company founded in 1948 by Holocaust survivor Eugene Herzog. His grandson, Mordy Herzog, runs the corporation today.

Kayco operates out of a vast building completed about five years ago. It encompasses 270,000 square feet of storage space. “One could get lost in there,” Weiss said. “When we first moved in, I actually did.”

Weiss said consumers need not worry about finding shelves empty when they shop for Passover food and wine. “In terms of availability,” he said, “we don’t have a problem. You can find anything you need in Stop & Shop, Kings, ShopRite, or any conventional supermarket. I’m worried about what’s going on with the virus, but not how we can provide product. I actually have fun.

“Don’t print that,” he added with a laugh. “If Mordy knew that, he might want to cut my salary.”

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