Why is this Seder different from all others? For one thing, this Seder, Jews are even asking if it’s safe to open the door for Elijah.
Ellen Levine of Swampscott ruefully recounted this joke that she’d heard – online, not in person, of course – as she described the ways that her Seder would be different in the midst of what some have called “the 11th plague.”
This year, Levine and her husband Joel were planning to host 12 family members from across the world. They hadn’t hosted a Seder with everyone together in four years, and since they plan to make Aliyah soon, it would’ve been the last time everyone was together in America. “Everybody’s just devastated,” she said.
Since Levine is Orthodox, she will not be able to use video conferencing to patch in her relatives for a virtual Seder. So this year, Levine’s Seder will consist of just her and her husband, and since she is now the youngest, she plans to recite the Four Questions, read the whole Haggadah, and prepare her entire Seder meal, including the brisket, albeit in slightly smaller portions.
“We’re gonna do it with a whole heart and enthusiasm, because why make ourselves sad?” she said. “We’re gonna try to be as freilach [happy] as possible.”
Despite all the obstacles in place, North Shore Jews remain committed to enjoying a freilach Seder. Conservative and Reform synagogues are all hosting first or second-night Seders through Zoom or Facebook Live, as are many of their congregants. No one has hosted a virtual Seder before – or “streaming Seder,” as Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El prefers to call it to avoid giving the impression that it’s anything less than a full Seder – so like so much else these days, the Seders will be somewhat improvised. The Haggadah portion will remain similar or identical, but people cannot eat and schmooze for hours afterward like normal.
“It’s a Seder – as long as there are the elements – the matzah, the shankbone, and you have all the steps, it’s a Seder,” said Rabbi David Cohen Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, which will host a first night Seder and other Passover services online. “This is very new, these halakhic decisions – do you leave the camera on before? I’ve been asking my ritual committee and hearing from different rabbis from the Hebrew College network and the North Shore Rabbinical Association, and there’s things some do, and some things others don’t.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, which will host Seders on the first and second nights, will provide a Haggadah onscreen for people to follow along. Once that portion is order, Perlman will pause the camera and mute the audio for 45 minutes to give everyone a chance to enjoy their meals. Then everyone will reconvene to sing Passover songs together. Anyone can watch on YouTube, but people need a password to participate in the Zoom session.
“We can’t have people come to our homes and join us, but we can join each other virtually, and that’s a blessing. We didn’t have that 20 years ago,” said Perlman. “The ability for us to turn our TV’s on, and I know we’re not in the same room, but we can sing Dayenu together with people all around the world. So while it’s different, and I’m gonna miss my children and grandchildren sitting at my table singing Dayenu with me and laughing together, and doing a L’Chaim Tovim with my family where we toast each other, we’ll do it virtually. I refuse to say that this Passover I’m alone.”
Yet many people, especially people in poverty and elderly people in nursing homes on lockdown that don’t accept new visitors, risk being alone on a holiday when Leviticus commands us to help the stranger, since we were “once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Ellen and Larry Lodgen of Marblehead talked about trying to set up Ellen’s 94-year-old father, who lives at Brooksby Village in Peabody, on Zoom remotely. Thanks to a recent initiative from Combined Jewish Philanthropies delivering 3000 Seder plates and meals to people requesting them, Lodgen’s father will also be able to join in the meal once the Zoom is set up. In addition to helping with that program, many synagogues continue to deliver food through other initiatives, and are making their Seder livestreams open to the public.
Even though the North Shore Jewish community has found creative ways to celebrate Passover, it is still a trying and fearful time. But many say that this pandemic and all its parallels to Passover – from plagues to hiding inside hoping the Angel of Death will pass over our doors – makes the experience more intense and meaningful.
“The notion of freedom and slavery takes on a whole new meaning this year,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody. “We don’t have taskmasters over us, but we have situational and circumstantial taskmasters impeding us to function as we do normally. While we normally appreciate the concept of exile and redemption, most years when we talk about redemption, it’s very philosophical. This year, it’s quite literal. We need to find a way out and through some of these physical, practical, tangible challenges.”
“Mitzrayim means Egypt, but metzar is a boundary,” said David Nathan of Swampscott, who just celebrated the bris of his newborn son Zev over Zoom. “We can really embody the story and this idea that a Jew is supposed to believe that God is taking them out of Egypt right now, and every single day.”