Fewer at the table, but everyone at the seder
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PassoverTechnology brings Jews virtually together

Fewer at the table, but everyone at the seder

For those unable to physically join family and friends this Passover, Zoom and FaceTime can help

Laptops and other devices can bring families together during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Laptops and other devices can bring families together during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Point Breeze resident Barbara Weiss has been hosting large seders in her home every Passover for the past 35 years. This year, thanks to COVID-19, things will be different.

But although it will be just her and her husband David sitting around their dining room table as they tell the story of the Jews’ redemption from slavery, there will still be plenty of family at the Weiss seder.

“My daughter came up with the idea to have a virtual seder on FaceTime or Zoom,” said Weiss, who readily embraced the idea of using video technology to bring her family together for the holiday.

Weiss has two daughters who live out of town with their husbands and two children each: one in Connecticut and one in Calgary-Edmonton, Canada. To make sure everyone is on the same page, they will all use the Maxwell House Haggadah, and they will take turns reading from the text in English or Hebrew as they always do.

The only complication, said Weiss, is figuring out what time to begin the seders because of the two-hour difference between Eastern Standard Time and Mountain Standard Time.

“If it’s 8:00 here, it’s 6:00 there,” she noted. “The people in Connecticut will be hungry. But if we start when it’s 6:00 in Connecticut, it will be 4:00 for my other daughter’s family.”

Somehow, they will figure it out.

“You can’t stop living,” said Weiss. “You can either complain about it, which will accomplish nothing, or say, ‘there’s technology,’ and make the best of it.”

Virtual seders — before the onset of the holiday — may also be held at Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, according to Sharyn Rubin, its director of resident and community services. At the Jewish Association of Aging-run facility, strict precautions have been taken to avoid contagion, including the prohibition of all visitors. Residents are no longer eating in communal dining areas, but instead are having meals in their rooms.

“We will most likely not be holding communal seders,” said Rubin in an email. “We have a closed-circuit TV system with a camera in the synagogue. Rabbi (Eli) Seidman will lead a model communal seder on TV. Residents will be given their own seder plate. They will individually partake in the seder from their room on the afternoon of the onset of Passover.”

Activities staff will be visiting each room during the model seder “to make sure our folks are able to participate to the fullest,” Rubin noted, adding that plans for the holiday were subject to change. “Among the many sad parts of this is that these folks will not be with their families,” Rubin said. “It’s harder during the holidays.”

Last year, Marnie Fienberg established the non-profit 2 For Seder in honor of her mother-in-law, Joyce Fienberg, who was murdered in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018. The mission of 2 For Seder was to fight anti-Semitism by asking Jews to invite two people of a different faith to their seder. Thousands participated in almost 1,000 seders during Passover last year, and more than 1,100 homes were planning on participating in 2020.

But because of COVID-19, and the need to social distance, “We are suspending the premise of 2 for Seder this year,” said Fienberg. “We are uncomfortable with people inviting anyone into their house.”

Instead, 2 for Seder is offering an online class to help people who are comfortable using technology on the holiday plan for a virtual seder.

The class will be offered March 31 on Facebook or via a webinar and can be accessed at 2forseder.org.

“The key is not to just set stuff up and do your normal thing – I’m bored just thinking about that,” Fienberg said. “Things are so depressing right now, but Passover is coming up and it is something to look forward to.”

Fienberg and her cohorts at 2 For Seder “want to encourage people to still have a seder,” but to think of themselves as TV producers and to come up with innovative ways to get kids engaged.

The change in format for the non-profit has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, Fienberg stressed, but is for the safety and health of all.

She does not encourage people to invite those of other faiths to a first-time virtual seder.

Although a virtual seder “is good for people who are Jewish and for interfaith families, it’s not great if this experience for you is your first seder,” Fienberg said. “It’s not going to be the same as a traditional seder. This is not a regular year for seders.”

In addition to facilitating a group seder, technology can be used to enhance the holiday in other ways, according to Fienberg.

“This is the time your grandmother should be showing you through FaceTime how to make that kugel,” she said.

Fienberg also is encouraging people to send Passover gifts to those who are sheltering in place as a way of “sharing some of the sweetness” of the holiday.

Barbara Weiss is planning to do just that. She will be baking her daughters’ families’ favorite Passover cookies and shipping them to Canada and Connecticut.

“When you’ve got distances, you do what you can do,” Weiss said. “I just hope they go through the border.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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