Passover: a socially distanced Seder
Check synagogues for streaming and virtual Passover information. Online Haggadot are available in many different places. Passover begins at sunset on Wednesday, March 8.
Congregation Shomrei Emunah
Chabad of Montclair
Temple Ner Tamid
By GWEN OREL
The Passover Question is a staple of TV writers’ rooms, as well as fiction and playwriting classes.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?”
At a Seder, it is sung by the youngest person present, with the rest of the Four Questions.
This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Passover will truly be different from any other Passover in living memory.
With bans on any kind of social gathering and restricted shopping, the traditional Seder, a family dinner with ritual elements, has to be reimagined.
The holiday, which always involves shopping and preparation, now includes preparing by practicing with technology and figuring out what can be substituted for what.
In some ways, local rabbis say, the holiday about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is more meaningful than ever.
Many Jewish families will gather on Zoom, the video internet platform.
Verona resident Martin Golan, who attends Bnai Keshet, turned the Yiddish phrase “Zissen Pesach” — sweet Passover — to “Zissen Zoom ’n Pesach.”
Golan is excited that far-flung members of his family can “attend.” His son in Rwanda, his daughter from Montreal, and family in Florida and Ithaca can be there.
“This is much easier in some ways,” he said. “Seders tend to be a bit chaotic. You have to be a policeman to keep everybody from having cross-conversations.” With Zoom’s ability to mute microphones, that will be easier to control. And nobody has to worry about travel expenses or hotels.
Cantor Meredith Greenberg, of Bloomfield’s Reform Temple Ner Tamid, is holding Zoom classes about Passover.
“The word ‘Seder’ literally means order, and in these days, where so much has been disrupted and people are hurting, allowing ourselves to feel and breathe into the awareness that we are held by an order, a wisdom that is greater than all of the parts, is so essential,” Greenberg said.
To keep the order, a Seder host must choose a Haggadah, the Seder manual, a text with the story of the Exodus, and parts listed for people to read as they explain each ritual item. It gives the “order” (Seder) of the evening, including the blessings and songs.
One of the challenges of a Zoom Seder is making sure everyone is reading from the same
Haggadah, or script, so the part for “Participant 1” is the same at one table as it is at another.
Bnai Keshet member Jessica Brater is to use “Sammy Spider’s First Haggadah,” a children’s Haggadah, at her Zoom Seder. Brater may scan the Haggadah for her guests, or order and send them.
“We’re usually not super-organized about asking people to read particular things as we go around the table, but might take a little more coordination to figure out who will lead,” Brater said.
As of Monday, West Orange resident Debra Galant had not yet picked a Haggadah.
“I did a critique group for Studio Montclair, and sent an email package out first, so people could open up files in front of them,” she said. “That’s probably what we’ll do.”
Guests could number eight to 20, depending on whether everyone can get online. There is no limit to the number this year, she said with a laugh.
“One of the things that is typical is people talk about how hard it was to get there, and all the traffic. Instead, we’ll have laggards technologically who don’t understand Zoom. We’ll help people get mikes on, and learn to mute themselves. There will be a whole dance over unmuting yourself,” Galant said.
Montclair State University freshman Noah Gale is disappointed his family cannot go to a cousin’s in New York City, where there’s usually a gathering of about 30 people. His family’s Zoom Seder will be smaller.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, of Reconstructionist shul Bnai Keshet, who will lead a virtual Community Seder the second night, said the synagogue has been doing tech training to help the membership learn Zoom. “We’re hoping to use breakout meetings to allow people to interact with each other, or whoever happens to be in the ‘room’ they’re with,” he said.
But Zoom will not be a substitute for meeting in the flesh.
“One of the most emotional moments for me was realizing I wouldn’t be able to gather with my cousins and aunts and their children,” the rabbi said. “It’s sacred to my family, something we look forward to every year, the kids running around, singing songs.”
Montclair Local columnist Robin Woods feels a bit melancholy about it all. “There has to be a way for us to feel connected somehow, some way,” she said. Her Seder will likely be just herself and her husband, and possibly a neighbor, Liz Milner, who is president of the League of Women Voters. Both her son and daughter are essential workers: Her son works with the homeless and food-insecure, and her daughter has an office in the psych unit at St. Michael’s Medical Center. Neither is allowed to be around their parents.
But, she said, she is learning to doctor-up prepared gefilte fish with carrots and onions.
Rabbi David Greenstein, of conservative synagogue Shomrei Emunah, is also hard-hit.
“I had to call up my whole family and say we are not getting together, for the first time
since my birth,” Greenstein said. “A family Seder has been a tradition for generations. It’s heartbreaking we won’t be able to do that. I have friends that come, and open my home to people from the congregation. I hope I can rise to the occasion.” The Seder won’t last until 3 a.m. with just himself and his wife Zelda, he said sadly. Because of the laws against using electricity on a holy day observed by Conservative and Orthodox Jews, he won’t be holding a Zoom Seder either the first or second night.
Greenstein is holding a livestream conversation this coming Sunday morning about the Seder. He has also been holding a service called “Sharing Shabbat” on Saturday mornings in an empty building, streaming the service through an apparatus turned on before Shabbat begins. “It’s a little surreal,” he said.
He also invites members of the community to his home, virtually, to be at his Seder in real-time, via Google Hangout. The link is on the synagogue website, and he invites anyone who needs to observe Passover to please come and join.
And, Greenstein said, the sages said 2,000 years ago that it is possible to have a Seder alone. “Now there are opportunities to dig inside ourselves a little bit, ask who we are, what’s important to us. Passover is a night to do that in a focused way. What do we want to be free for? The simplest facts are: We were slaves in Egypt, and then God freed us.”
A plastic box of Haggadot free to the community is set outside Shomrei Emunah.
Linda Kaplan recently attended a graveside funeral on Facebook. A Zoom shiva call included funny stories about the deceased, and about 70 people attended, she said.
However, Kaplan is not planning a Zoom Seder. She will make a Seder for herself, her husband and her twin 14-year-old daughters.
Yaacov Leaf, rabbi of Chabad of Montclair, has opened up his own home to people in need of a Seder, sometimes hosting 35 people. This year, that’s impossible.
Leaf canceled a communal matzo baking that had been planned for right after Purim (March 9 and 10), although Gov. Phil Murphy had not yet issued the mandates on social distancing.
“Even if it was technically legal, as a religious organization we need to lead by example. We need to be the ones to show that right now, the commands of the hour supersede every other command,” Leaf said. He, as well as Tepperman, is trying to ensure that people are able to attend a virtual Seder, or hold their own. “I am trying to empower people,” he said.
THE SEDER PLATE
The ritual food on the Seder plate includes a shankbone (to symbolize the Paschal lamb, whose blood on the door lintels told the Angel of Death to pass over), a horseradish root, matzo, charoset (apple and wine mixture, symbolic of mortar), a green vegetable, and a roasted egg.
Galant is not sure she and her husband will get all of the ceremonial food.
“Since I’m now an artist, I might just paint a shankbone,” Galant said. “Maybe I should start working on that, do some watercolors, and send to people as part of the packet. I could do it as trading cards that they could hold up.”
Substitutions for the symbols on the Seder plate may happen: She might use thyme for parsley (karpas), and a chicken wing for the shankbone.
Woods is trying to stock up for Passover, but like Galant is nervous about shopping. “Senior shopping hours put people in the same risk group at the same place at the same time. There is a line outside. It’s terrifying to watch,” she said.
Tepperman said his family has not been able to find much other than a box of matzo and a box of chocolate matzo.
Matzo is the most important thing, Leaf says. “This year, you may not have a shankbone,” he said. “You may not know how to make bubbe’s brisket recipe. If there’s one thing you should have, it’s some matzo.”
Chabad can arrange delivery of that. In fact, Chabad has some Seder to-go packages that include matzo, grape juice, a Seder plate and instructions. Normally they are delivered to hospitals, but this year he is distributing them to whoever needs them.
Montclair is near two kosher supermarkets: Aron’s in West Orange and Seasons in Clifton, where Leaf hopes to get what he needs.
Greenstein agreed that what individuals need the most is matzo, and the four ritual cups of wine. “That’s handleable. We will help anybody that needs to shop,” he said, adding that people should ask the questions of themselves.
“We might be faking it, for the Seder plate,” Golan said. His wife Marian disagreed, saying, “We have a local fruit store in our town. I think we will be able to secure everything.” Like her husband, she is excited to have both children at the Seder. In order for his son to be able to attend, the New Jersey Zoom Seder will start at noon, which will be 6 p.m. in Rwanda.
Greenberg said, “I think this year of all years, we will loosen our grip on the need to have things exactly as we might in years past, and instead allow innovation to be more prominent.”
GATHERING TOGETHER SOMEHOW
Despite the obstacles, for most Jews the idea of passing over Passover was never a possibility.
“We always do it. It’s part of our social year. It’s partially an obligation, and partially a party,” Galant said. “There’s no pretending this is normal. It will be weird and a little sad to do Passover this way. It’s important that we do it anyway. To not do it would be to give up.”
Leaf concurred. “Now, more than ever, it’s so important to sit down wherever we are on the 14th night of Nissan,” he said.
For Greenberg, this year’s Seder will be a time to “celebrate freedom, remember the past, and strengthen each other in the present.”
Tepperman said, “Typically, we say put away your phones.” As for this night being different from all others, “How much different could it possibly be? There is a quality to it that is reminiscent of being locked in one’s home waiting for redemption that is described in the story before the final Exodus. I think that will feel especially resonant.
“You’re supposed to try and celebrate Passover in such a way that somebody would be compelled to ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ It’s supposed to inspire curiosity. That, at least, we’re going to have covered this year.”
Gale said he has loved Passover ever since he could remember. “I love eating matzo, and seeing my family,” he said.
But despite his disappointment, he seems to be getting used to the new normal.
He told Montclair Local he had to run: He had to get back to virtual Shabbat dinner with his grandparents.