A rabbi’s guide to having a virtual seder this Passover

Some things, like matzoh, never change.
Some things, like matzoh, never change.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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On the Jewish holiday of Passover, tradition holds that the youngest child present at the table asks the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This particular Passover, smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, will undoubtedly be different from all other holidays that friends and families have celebrated in the past. But that won’t stop Jewish people from carrying on the tradition of seder diners—ceremonial feasts featuring storytelling, rituals, and many glasses of wine. Instead, many social-distancing observers who can’t be with their loved ones in person plan to conduct seders this year over Google Hangouts and Zoom.

Among those planning a virtual seder is Judith Hauptman, a rabbi and professor emerita of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary who typically leads massive seders for people in their 20s and 30s for the group Ohel Ayalah. This year, she’ll be hosting a dinner for six from her home in New York City via video chat. Hauptman spoke with Quartz about her tips for a smooth seder in a time of self-isolation, and why the holiday carries extra significance for many Jewish people this year.

Plan ahead

Typically, the seder host provides food for everyone. In a remote seder, that’s not possible. For that reason, Hauptman recommends providing all members of the virtual seder with a complete list of the items they need on their table—including a box of matzoh, the unleavened bread eaten to memorialize the flight of Jewish slaves from Egypt thousands of years ago, and the bowl of salt water that symbolizes the tears shed during slavery. She compiled a complete list of items in a handy PDF. (For those who can’t get to the store to acquire things like horseradish or shank bone, some rabbis recommend simply drawing those items onto the seder plate instead.)

Send the list to all attendees in advance, as well as any assignments. Hauptman says that she prefers seders with lots of group participation, which could be hard to achieve with lots of people trying to talk over one another on camera. Instead, she suggests giving structure to the seder by asking each person to lead a particular discussion topic. “How about, four questions about the Four Sons?” she suggests.

If all attendees are using the same haggadah (the text read during Passover), send it around to the group in advance as well. The website Haggadahs R Us has made several options free to download in light of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hauptman says it’s also fine if people wind up using different haggadahs, as it’s always interesting to compare translations.)

And make sure to do a tech test-run before the seder date to make sure that everyone knows how to get on Zoom, Google Hangouts, or whatever the group’s video service of choice. “A virtual seder is such a nice idea, but unless you smooth the path by engaging in these kinds of preparations, you’re going to run into difficulties,” Hauptman says.

Address the elephant in the room

There’s no need to pretend that this is a normal seder during normal times. Instead, Hauptman says, the seder leader should open it by acknowledging the current crisis. “Allow people to talk about their experiences being locked down or feeling uncertain about the future. Let that influence your reading of the haggadah.”

But don’t let the undeniable darkness of this moment crowd out the opportunity for celebration. “This is a joyous holiday despite the fact that we’re living with a certain level of uncertainty,” she says. “At this time, traditions are more meaningful for us.”

Offer up an icebreaker 

At the beginning of the seder—particularly if it’s a larger group, or if it includes people who don’t know one another well—Hauptman says it’s smart to give everyone an opportunity to introduce themselves. “When I run public seders, I give an assignment: Say who you are, where you’re from, and where you hid the afikomen the last time you did that.” (The afikomen is a piece of matzoh that adults hide from children during the seder dinner; the kids have to find it in order to win a prize.)

This may be particularly worth doing in a year that may see unusual combinations of seder guests. Without geographical location as a consideration on the invite list, celebrants may well decide to open up their dinners to far-flung friends and acquaintances, as time zones allow.

“There’s that line [in the haggadah], Let all who are hungry come and eat,” says Hauptman. “Since we don’t have to provide food at a seder or room at the table this year, we can spread joy and seder rituals much more than ever before. That line will take on new meaning this year.” In other words, even if it’s not possible to feed people physically right now, Passover observers can use video chat to offer companionship and the comfort of ritual to a potentially greater number of people at a time when many feel anxious and isolated.

Reflect on the parallels between the past and present

The pandemic offers plenty of material for a robust discussion about why the story of Passover still matters today—and not just because the haggadah famously includes the tale of the Old Testament God unleashing 10 plagues upon ancient Egyptians. Hauptman says that at its core, Passover is a story about hope.

“This seder is going to make me focus on people, back then, who were living in very difficult circumstances, but there’s a positive ending to the story,” she says. “The trajectory, we always talk about going from slavery to freedom.” People today, many of whom are struggling with feeling psychologically and physically confined in an effort to keep themselves and others healthy, may be able to relate in a new way to a narrative that culminates in liberation.

So too may the Passover story resonate with people who are currently feeling the precariousness of life as they deal with sickness themselves or the illness of loved ones. Hauptman observes that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is “mitzrayim,” which also means narrow straits. “We are in narrow straits right now,” she says.

On a lighter note, Hauptman also draws a parallel between the current leadership of New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Moses. “I feel good when he gives me the info, I feel like he’s in charge,” she says of Cuomo. “I don’t know how the Jews who left Egypt felt about having a leader like that. But they were not wandering in all different directions. Somebody was moving them along.”