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A pandemic Passover without family? Not necessarily

Every year on Passover, Jews ask the same question that is at the heart of the recitation of the Aggadah during the seder: Why is this night different from all other nights? But this year, we’ll also be asking ourselves, why is this Passover different from any other we have ever experienced?

The answer is that, sadly, most of us will be celebrating alone or only with those who live with us. The normal experience of gathering with extended families and friends to commemorate the exodus from Egypt is out of the question. As a result of the spread of the coronavirus, almost all of us are in one form of quarantine or another, practicing social distancing, staying at home or in a complete lockdown, as is the case with Israelis.

The Aggadah teaches us to understand that the story that we retell involves each one of us individually. That makes each seder a rare chance for Jews to link with Judaism to reconnect with faith, Jewish peoplehood. But without our loved ones and the meal, will we go through the exercise by themselves? Many will not, but we at the Sephardi Federation of Palm Beach County encourage using this opportunity to enhance connections.

Are virtual seders the answer to this problem? According to Orthodox Sephardi authorities and all Conservative and Reform authorities, the answer is “yes.”

 If you consider yourself Orthodox

14 Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel last week declared that families may conduct their shared Seder over videoconference, despite Orthodox religious law normally banning the use of electronic devices on Shabbat and festivals. (see: https://www.timesofisrael.com/sephardic-orthodox-rabbis-say-passover-seder-can-be-held-via-videoconference/)

For the Non-Orthodox

If you consider yourself Conservative or Reconstructionist or Reform – or are not affiliated, the non-Orthodox movements have approved virtual seders.

Organizing such a virtual seder isn’t that difficult. You need to set up a meeting place with a link that all invited participants can click on and join together for the reading and perhaps even the festive meal. Coordinate a common text to read and make sure that everyone has access to the basics of putting together a seder plate and table.

With the rising toll of coronavirus illnesses and ensuing deaths, and with our connection to the rest of family and society severed, this is a terribly sad time. Yet those who feel comfortable doing so can create a seder that will be memorable in a good way. In a virtual sense, our Passover tables can be bigger and more inclusive than ever in 2020. Passover is the ultimate family education experience. This year, it can help us be close with our families even though we are apart. Out of sadness, grief and isolation can come a chance for connection, joy and remembrance of this sacred festival of freedom.

How to begin:

You need to set up one person in your Seder group with a video conference account.

The most popular option is https://zoom.us/. A free account will limit your seder to 40 minutes – and perhaps less, since many may want to sign in early to be sure they know how to do this. A paid account can be set up for the month for $14.99. You will need a credit card, and you will need to remember to cancel before the month is out. (If you want to keep the account, there are discounts for annual membership) Note that your computer or electronic device must have a microphone to participate on voice. If you get the paid version, there is an option to dial in by phone as well. (Another option is FreeConferenceCall.com – check out our web site for further information.)

When asked, you will want to download the application for the host and everyone else – while strictly speaking you can just use the web site, everything runs more smoothly with the application. You can connect with any device (and download the app), desktop computer, laptop computer, tablet (such as iPhone), smart phone (such iPhone or Android). For those in the family without such electronic devices, ordinary telephones can be used as well for a voice connection – if you use the paid version. (FreeConferenceCall apparently has a call-in number, so that may be an option.) Once the host sends out the link, you participants can either click on it for a direct connection from a desk top or laptop – or will have to enter the meeting ID number.

Everyone should have a common Aggadah format. If you all have copies of a book you have always used, that is fine. We know that keeping everyone’s attention for an entire seder can be a challenge. In a video conference format, it can be more challenging, so you want to pre-plan the most important elements. We have prepared 2 versions of a Sephardi Aggadah for your use:

An 8.5×11 version of what we have used for our model seders, but without graphics so that it is easy to print on your own printer and easy for the host to share the screen for viewing. There is another version that my family will be using which is a bit shorter to make it easier to manage with young grandchildren on the connection – in this version, we placed songs like Ken Supiense and Un Kavritiko up front before the actual seder. In both versions, we have added a new Djoha story about quarantines and added a special prayer for healing during this crisis. We suggest you send out one of these or your preferred format prior to the seder. On our website, you will also see our traditional Passover resources including links to music on YouTube and a complete traditional Sephardi Aggadah in Ladino, Hebrew and English (https://sephardifederationpbc.org/sephardic-passover/)

Assign parts and after introductions, remind all that nothing can be understood if more than one person is speaking or if there is other background noise. They can each mute if this is a problem – or the host can mute participants. Singing together can be difficult with the electronic transmission delay. Experiment with it and if it is a problem, have one person lead with the others singing at home with computers muted.

Good luck.

Buen Pesach, Pesach Alegre kon salud.