Tips for Hosting a Virtual Seder and Other Ways to Celebrate Passover Right Now

Next year in person.

Traditional Passover Gold Seder Plate
Photo: tomertu/Getty

At the beginning of the service for Passover, found in the special prayer book just for this holiday called, the Haggadah, its customary for the youngest child to recite the four questions. One of these questions is "Why is this night unlike all other nights?"

There is has never been a year where that was more true—this will be unlike any other night. Just about entire world is under lockdown, observing various forms of stay-at-home orders by local governments because of the coronavirus. This means that many families won't be able to gather the way they have always done—mine included. This is one major holiday where the Jewish people do not observe the main service in a synagogue or temple, but rather in the home. It's commanded that we re-tell the Passover story in our homes, the story of the Jewish people's escape from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh's rule. They escaped and flourished afterwards as a collective group. For centuries, families have gathered around tables crammed with chairs and little elbow room to accommodate brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and your new friends who just moved to town and don't have family here. It's a "the more, the merrier" type of occasion. I have lived away from my family all of my adult life, and I have managed to make it home for Passover to celebrate with my entire extended family nearly every year. The few I didn't, well I didn't have to look hard to find a friend who said, "My parents would love for you to join us!" It's a holiday to celebrate togetherness and due to the circumstances, we cannot be physically together. And that's a really tough pill to swallow.

While thinking about this and nursing my own broken heart of the thought of being here in Birmingham on my own this year, and not getting to be with my family, I called a rabbi friend of mine. Rabbi Noam Raucher said, "The pandemic strikes at the heart of what many of us need and enjoy about the holiday season, whether it's Passover or Easter, we all know the idea is breaking bread with people we love and how the ritual of that, and how it builds kinship between all of us." We spoke about how for the Orthodox Jewish community, Passover is observed in the way that the Sabbath is, that from sundown the night before the first full day, until sundown after the second full day, we are to be at rest. That means, no work, which includes using items that have to "work" like electricity. People generally leave strategic lights on in their homes, they just can't actually switch the light on and off—that's the work part. So, in this period of staying at home and isolation, we have all relied heavily on the use of technology. Many will use video chat systems to host virtual Seders. But for those in the Orthodox community, it's not an option. Rabbi Raucher pointed out that in some communities, Jewish leaders have made the special allowance for this because without the technology we cannot "gather," the way we are called to do for Passover. "This is an Egyptian moment, right? The plague here is that of pushing people apart. And how painful that is," he said. He then asked me would the virtual Seder be a good enough substitute for sitting next to someone you love? To the actual ability to share stories, not only of our collective history as a Jewish people, but of our families' histories? This year there will be a loss of that tangible, emotional connection. And the truth is, I don't know the answer to his question yet.

What to do, and how we choose to observe is a choice that individual families have had to make. My family, although raised in a Modern Orthodox synagogue, we are choosing to have a Seder over video chat. It won't be the extended family this year, just my parents, siblings, and my nieces and nephews. We are in 5 different households, in three different states and two different time zones. But, because there are young children (and their bedtimes) involved, we are going to hold ours before sundown. For many years now, my brother and his wife have hosted and led our family Seder, taking over the helm from our grandparents. My parents have been on hand to happily serve as chief grand-children wranglers, and my mom still always handled the flowers for the table. But this year will be a far less formal affair, and so we are having a little fun. At my brother's request, each family member was given a portion of the Passover story to tell, in whatever creative way we choose to do. I won't get to hug my parents, or my nieces or nephews or siblings this year. And that's all I really want to do. It won't be the same, but I think, with an open mind, it could still be a fun evening, focused on family, tradition, and love—from a distance.

When I asked friends what they were planning to do, there was the same general tone of melancholy that I feel. The same summary of "it will just be us," meaning their spouse and children, and many also said they would be having a virtual Seder. For Conservative and Reform Jews, their interpretations of the Jewish laws and rituals are a little more modern, so the use of computers or tablets wouldn't be a concern. But when I spoke to my friend Rachel Goldsmith, an Orthodox mother of a young daughter in Atlanta, she said that they will do just a Seder with just herself, her husband, and their little girl and not the 20 guests she was planning to host. But she said that they've decided to do a pre-holiday Seder with the extended family so her daughter and the other little ones in the family still get a sense of that larger community experience. "The plus side is I could have more time to focus on the deeper meaning of the holiday and we'll have a lot more time at home playing with our kid," she told me.

Nearly all of my friends referenced the fact that they would have to put a "hodge-podge" of a meal together because of limited ability to get to the store and the fact that there just aren't as many options for ingredients. The elaborate meals once planned for large families are being simplified. A friend in Colorado, Ali Sorkin, told me they are making do with what they can find and will have virtual Seder with friends and family, and then she referenced the last line of the Haggadah we all recite together, "Next year in Jerusalem!" This is to indicate that the hope is that one day the Jewish people will all be reunited in the Holy Land, but I believe Ali's sentiment is more accurate this year, as she said, "Next year in person!"

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But perhaps it's less "unlike other nights" than we see. Maybe it's the first Passover in a while that will more closely resemble the story that we recite year after year. A story about how when the Jews fled Egypt they had to go quickly. They grabbed what they could and ran. They couldn't wait for their bread to rise, which is why we observe the holiday by refraining from eating leavened bread, only unleavened bread—matzah. They made do with what they could carry with them and they succeeded in not only reclaiming their freedom but ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Today, we will all make-do with the ingredients we have in our pantries or were able to safely find in the grocery stores despite the scarcity of usual ingredients on store shelves. But we will still gather, in some form. We will still tell the stories of our ancestors, teach the next generation about our heritage, and most important of all, we will find a way to connect with those we love, and we will get through this momentary hardship. Next year in person, indeed.

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