Carrying on Passover traditions despite pandemic
First there was one box that appeared on the iPad screen. It was my cousin, her younger daughter and husband at their home in Greenwich.
Then another lit box up. Oh! I see my cousin’s older daughter, who is currently taking online classes at her California law school.
One by one, more and more of my Passover “guests” are joining my seder, which I’m hosting at my home this year.
Why is this year different from all other years?
Well, there is one huge difference, which relates to the strongly encouraged social distancing measures that were put in place as a result of the global pandemic.
Passover, which started Wednesday and ends Thursday, April 16, is the first major religious holiday to take place since the coronavirus outbreak.
For my family and other families around the world who practice the Jewish faith, Passover means carrying on traditions, and many of those traditions involve spending time with family and friends — visiting their homes or having them visit mine.
It means sitting closely beside one another at a table while passing around large plates of food.
It means being shoulder to shoulder on a comfy couch while posing for photos.
It means embracing each other with warm hugs and kisses.
None of that can happen this year.
Yet, we’re all making the best of the situation by connecting through various online apps and programs. In this way, we can still celebrate Passover together — even if it’s not in our usual way.
For our seder, my guests have connected through Zoom Video Conferencing. There were 14 of us in total — four sitting in the room with me in my Danbury home and 10 on my Zoom screen.
There was a friend from California and her father. Two other friends conferenced in from their Stamford home. And my son, Bradley, a third-year Dartmouth College student who is involved in a research program in San Francisco, also participated.
“How is everyone?” I asked the group, before we got started.
Multiple boxes on the Zoom screen respond at once, so it’s difficult to tell who is saying what. In general though, everyone has a smile on their face and looks happy.
We were determined to make this work.
We proceed with our seder. Everyone opens up their Passover Haggadah, as we normally do. The Haggadah is a Jewish book that dictates the order of the seder.
While we usually take turns reading, we thought it would be easier, given our new circumstances, if the leader of the seder would just read everything. This was my oldest son Ryan, a graduate student at SUNY Albany, who is now home.
One of our “guests” shares her screen with the page number, so everyone can follow along.
“We thank you God for giving us the gift of Festivals for joy and holidays for happiness, among them the day of Passover,” Ryan read.
We all poured the wine and drank together, as we do every year.
We broke the matzo together, just like we always do.
We heard the four questions and we answered them together, as part of our tradition.
When it came time to sing some traditional Passover songs, everyone sang along.
We weren’t always in sync, but that didn’t seem to matter — as long as we did it together.
Penny Kessler, my cantor at the United Jewish Center in Danbury, had 21 members of the synagogue join her virtual seder, which she hosted in her Bethel home.
While the UJC is closed at this time, Kessler said it was important to hold a virtual seder because “there are so many people who need to be with family, and the UJC wants to be that extended family. People want to connect with each other and their faith community, and that’s where a synagogue can make a huge difference.”
One of the points of Passover, according to Kessler, is to “leave the narrow straits of slavery, and that’s very powerful symbolism, especially with the COVID-19 crisis.”
She continued, “People are struggling, and Passover’s message of freedom is extremely valuable. Passover/the Exodus is also when the Israelites began to become a community, and we need community that looks out for each other more than ever right now.”
After my seder service was over, we all got the chance to catch up with one another while we all ate dinner.
As I spoke to everyone, for a moment — just a moment — I forgot they aren’t in the room with me.
Then, I suddenly remembered and feel a bit sad, longing for Passovers of the past.
However, those feelings only make me feel more empowered, knowing that despite all the challenges this holiday poses, as well as all the challenges taking place in the world right now, I’m certain we’ll overcome them and be together once again for future Passovers.
Sandra Diamond Fox is associate editor of The Darien Times.