Rachel Fisher, who lives in Chicago, has hosted her extended family’s Passover Seder for the past several years.
The holiday involves a ritual retelling of the biblical story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt and a traditional meal with special foods, such as matzah and bitter horseradish.
“It is absolutely my favorite holiday even though there's so much work involved,” Fisher said. “I love the smells of the food. I love the smell of the spring air. I love that this is a holiday that we're supposed to be sharing with our kids and supposed to be telling them the stories.”
But when Passover begins Wednesday night, many Jewish families, including Fisher’s, won’t be sitting around the same table. Instead, they’re meeting online via videoconferencing platforms like Zoom because of social distancing measures in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 1.4 million worldwide and killed more than 83,400 as of Wednesday.
The virtual Seder gatherings will probably gain some participants while losing others — both for technological and religious reasons. And Fisher is expecting a little of both.
“I know that my family is very loud and very talkative. So, we’ll see. Do we have to mute everyone? Probably. Otherwise, we’ll be talking over each other or possibly people will stay a little quieter this year, because they don’t have everyone in the same room to feed off of.”
“I know that my family is very loud and very talkative,” she said. “So, we’ll see. Do we have to mute everyone? Probably. Otherwise, we’ll be talking over each other or possibly people will stay a little quieter this year, because they don’t have everyone in the same room to feed off of.”
One cousin who finds online communication awkward has decided not to attend, Fisher said. She also worries some older family members will not be able to figure out the technology.
“We've been trying to work on that with them, and get everyone set up as early as possible.”
Stephanie Aines, who lives in a Boston suburb, can relate. Her brother in California and some other family and friends who don’t usually attend their Seder will join their Zoom. But they don’t yet know if her 94-year-old grandmother, who lives in a Jewish nursing home, will be able to participate.
“We've been struggling to get her on video chat. Will she be able to join? I don't know. And that's really hard,” Aines said. “But then the good news is getting to have these other family members join.”
Joni Seligman of Perth in Ontario, Canada, is also glad her son in Colombia, who normally lives too far away to come in for their 23-person Seder, and her two younger daughters in Canada, will all be on Zoom on Wednesday.
“So, it will be different this year, but quite beautiful,” Seligman said.
Adapting religious rules
Different denominations of Judaism have different rules about technology use on holidays.
For Reform Jews, there’s no religious obstacle to convening online, said Andrew Rehfeld, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has students in the United States and Israel.
“This is simply an extension of what Reform Jews do really well. We innovate all the time. We are fully creative in terms in the face of modernity,” Rehfeld said.
More conservative denominations restrict technology use on holidays.
“If you're a traditional halakhah-observant, Jewish law-observant Jew, you won't use electricity, whether for lights or for computer or phones on Shabbat or holidays.”
“If you're a traditional Halakhah-observant, Jewish law-observant Jew, you won't use electricity, whether for lights or for computer or phones on Shabbat or holidays,” explained Shlomo Zuckier, an Orthodox rabbi who lives north of New York City in one of the first areas of the United States to be shut down.
Zuckier said rabbis in Israel and the US have been discussing how to apply normal rules in these extraordinary times. Jewish holidays begin at sundown, he said, so a lot of people are convening a family Zoom in advance.
“It's a sort of pregame […] before the holiday starts, so you avoid any possible complications legally, in terms of Jewish law,” he said.
Rabbis, particularly in the US, he noted, have also been discussing ways to mitigate the effects of isolation, which can take a toll on people’s mental health.
This week, the largest association of Orthodox rabbis in North America, the Rabbinical Council of America, advised all of its members to make sure they are reachable over the holiday by phone to any congregant in crisis.
“That's really unprecedented,” he said. “You asked me would that ever happen? I'd say not a chance, that would never happen — maybe I'd give you 100-to-1 odds.”
One Orthodox congregation, The Jewish Center in New York, has even arranged an online Seder for people who would otherwise be alone. East Coast participants will turn on their computers before the holiday begins at sundown and leave them on in listen-only mode. A rabbi in Los Angeles will broadcast the Seder early, before technology restrictions take effect in the Pacific time zone.
Seffi Kogen, a member of The Jewish Center, will be home with his parents and siblings in New Jersey to celebrate the holiday. He said he's glad others will have access to an online Seder, but it still makes him a little uneasy.
“Jews have observed Jewish law whether, you know, kind of under easy circumstances or in the breach for thousands of years, and the idea that, that would get cast aside because of this challenging time is something that just personally doesn't sit right with me,” Kogen said.
Finding creative ways to gather
Some Jews have found ways to create a sort of hybrid, online-and-offline Seder.
“I was like, to my mom, ‘We can't just all sit down and have ramen,’” said Jenna Michlin, a chef who lives in Michigan.
Her family will meet online, but Michlin is cooking and delivering food to participants nearby. As a chef who has also been making food for a nearby hospital since her workplace closed, she is familiar with food safety measures.
“So, we all, everyone in Michigan will be eating the same meal.”
“So, we all, everyone in Michigan will be eating the same meal,” she said.
Those out of state will draw from Michlin’s grandmother’s recipes. The Seder that her grandfather managed to hold with other Jewish soldiers while fighting in Europe during World War II is family legend.
“They had a Seder in literally improbable, impossible times,” Michlin said. “So, I feel kind of a responsibility almost to him to do this and make sure our family can gather however we can. And I think we're so lucky to have the technology to be able to sit more or less face-to-face all over the world.”
Still, like the song sung at the end of many Seders — which includes the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem” — many Jewish families hope that next year they can meet in person once again.