Brooklyn is Preparing for Virtual Seders During the Pandemic

Photo by Erica Sherman/Bklyner

The holidays are about connecting. From services, where dozens pray side-by-side and touch their siddur, or prayer book, to a roving Torah before pressing it to their lips, to the meals, where fellow diners rip hunks off of the same loaf of challah with their hands, Jewish celebrations are moments of communal joy. Passover, which begins on April 8th this year, is no exception, but many will need to connect virtually. 

Coronavirus restrictions have prohibited gatherings of more than a few, and synagogues and organizations around Brooklyn are doing everything they can to keep Passover going. Some are hosting virtual Seders (ritual feasts); others, like the Chabad, are providing resources for families new to hosting their own Seders, and delivering “Seder-to-Go” kits that include much of the necessary supplies. 

Rabbi Heidi Hoover at B’ShERT, a Reform synagogue in Flatbush, will be conducting a virtual community Seder on April 9th, the second night of Passover, using either Google Meet or the remote conferencing platform, Zoom. 

“For many families, including my family, this is the most favorite holiday of the year,” Rabbi Hoover said. “To not be able to [celebrate] — I think it’s really important to acknowledge how sad that is.”

All we can do right now, she said, is to make the best of the situation using technology. 

Zoom or Google Meet are ideal mediums for holidays, Rabbi Hoover said, because “people can at least see each other.” She’ll also send out a PDF Haggadah, or Passover prayer booklet, which participants can print out for their own home Seder, as well as instructions for how to assemble a proper Passover table, with suggestions for alternatives to Seder plate components if people can’t track them down, like using a chicken bone in lieu of a lamb shank. 

“It’s fine to improvise,” she said. “Don’t do anything unsafe for the purpose of the ritual.” 

Another thing to note, Rabbi Hoover said, is that “we are also trying to figure out how to navigate something brand new, something we’ve never experienced before — which is the same thing that was happening to the Israelites. It was a complete transformation of their world.”

We should think of these circumstances as a new way of understanding Passover, she said: “What does it mean to have your entire way of life change, even temporarily?”

Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim will be hosting three virtual Seders on the second night of Passover, Rabbi Rachel Timoner informed us over email: a community Seder, a Seder for families with young children, and a Seder with Brooklyn Jews, a community of young Jewish Brooklynites. They also plan to hold two workshops for Beth Elohim members to run their own virtual Seders on the first night of Passover. 

Similarly to Rabbi Hoover, Rabbi Timoner connected the struggle of the ancient Jews to present-day challenges. 

“With the miracle of technology, we will be able to gather with loved ones virtually even while we’re physically distant,” Rabbi Timoner said over email. “If you think about it, the Seder itself is a virtual gathering, with our ancestors who crossed the sea from slavery to freedom, and with all of the generations since who wrote and contributed to the Haggadah, making meaning of our story of liberation.”

The Brooklyn branch of international Hillel organization BASE will also host a virtual Seder, and though tickets are available to purchase on Eventbrite, the event is donation-based.

The Chabad movement does not encourage the use of technology to host Passover, but it does encourage families and friends to reach out to each other virtually ahead of Shabbat. Rabbi Motti Seligson, Head of Media Relations for the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights, said that families should use Skype and other platforms to share greetings with grandparents and other relatives, as is traditional to do every year. However, once they sit down for Passover and Shabbat, they should “unplug from everything else, unplug from the chaos, and focus on the inspirational message of Passover.” Much like Rabbis Timoner and Hoover, Rabbi Seligson sees the current circumstances as a unique opportunity. 

“You could really become the patriarch or matriarch of your Seder,” Rabbi Seligson said. 

Having a smaller Seder might also benefit children, who will likely appreciate a Passover celebration where they have the full attention of their parents, he said. 

A section of the Chabad website is devoted to celebrating Passover during the coronavirus pandemic, providing materials like printable Haggadahs and shopping and cleaning guides for families who have no prior experience hosting a Seder. Nationally, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries are also currently delivering “Seder-to-Go” kits to congregations, which contain a Seder plate with special cups for the different symbolic Passover foods, like charoset, maror, and egg, the Chabad website states. Rabbi Seligson suggested that people reach out to their own congregation to see if they’re offering the kits. 

Tell us: how will you be upholding the Passover tradition this year?

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Rachel Lindy Baron

Rachel is a reporter for Bklyner and recent Brooklyn transplant who is a bit obsessed with food.

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