Jewish Pittsburgh embraces the ‘Zeder’
COVID-19Zoom Seder

Jewish Pittsburgh embraces the ‘Zeder’

Communities celebrate freedom while practicing isolation

Lydia and Craig Blank and their children, Abby, Landon and Nina. 
Photo provided by Lydia Blank
Lydia and Craig Blank and their children, Abby, Landon and Nina. Photo provided by Lydia Blank

Having six sisters scattered around the country, Lydia Blank is used to multitasking during the holidays.

“It’s not unusual for us to have a computer at the seder table — in the past, we’d Skype to bring in my sister from California or one of my sisters from Virginia,” said Blank, who lives in Highland Park with her husband, Craig, and their three children.

The role of the computer this year, though, was a little bit different.

Blank took part in a Zoom seder — some are calling them “Zeders”— last week for Passover, alongside her mom and stepdad in the South Hills, 18 children, several sisters and her one brother-in-law’s family, a cousin in Shadyside and a neighbor, she said, “literally across the street.” They each followed different Haggadahs. It was Pesach for the coronavirus era.

“We did the best we could,” said Blank, echoing Dayenu. “We interpreted what we had to say. And we were all focused on the computer and listening. It was a very focused experience.”

Blank’s family wasn’t the only one using digital technology to share the Jewish story of escaping slavery in Egypt. Rabbis at several Pittsburgh congregations also invited people into their homes, virtually speaking, to mark the holiday.
Take Rabbi Alex Greenbaum. The spiritual leader for the past 18 years at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills has been getting a lot of practice with Zoom video-conferencing software.

“Seven days a week we’re on Zoom,” laughed the Conservative rabbi.

Typically, the congregation gathers at the synagogue on the second night of Passover for a group seder. This year, Greenbaum’s dining room had to do. More than 75 families — nearly one in every four that go to the congregation — took part in the Zeder last week.

“We’re really going for community connection,” Greenbaum said. “You could probably find better entertainers somewhere else. But we’re not missing an opportunity for a community connection. A lot of people are tired the second night of Passover and I think we’re more tired than we used to be. But this was nice.”

Rochelle Wynne, who moved from Seattle to Upper St. Clair in November, is no slouch when it comes to Zoom.

“My grandson does it for work all the time and my daughter in England uses it regularly,” Wynne said.

She was touched to “attend” the Beth El Zeder. On the first night, she had a Zeder with family from around the world — some 16 adults and six children in all. She joked the “30-minute Haggadah” each of the family members downloaded for the first night took them more than an hour and a half to complete.

It was important for her to do the Zeder, she said, because of her 6-year-old great-granddaughter.

“Kids feel isolated enough,” Wynne said. “I felt it was important for her to see a lot of other people doing this at the same time.”

Blank’s mother, Naomi Herman, echoed a similar sentiment about her family Zeder. She and her husband, Paul, emailed or called family beforehand to discuss their parts. They even did a “Where’s Waldo?”-style afikomen search, with each of the children set to receive a prize via U.S. mail after they email in their results to Herman.

“We wanted to involve everyone — the age range [that night] spanned from 4 ½ into the 80s,” Herman said. “Some of the kids had to learn parts by rote. Some read and practiced their portion. We wanted to make it as inclusive as possible.”
“I thought it went well,” she added.

Paul Herman said it was even touching to make light of the circumstances.

“When you’re looking at 30, 32, 34 people, it’s challenging in an apartment,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ we said, ‘Next year in the clubhouse room!’”

Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill also livestreamed a Zeder for the second night of Passover 5780. The spiritual leader there, Rabbi Seth Adelson, said guidance on using Zoom for the Conservative movement came from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

“I feel promoting a sense of community in this time of isolation (worked with) the halachic principles,” Adelson said.

Adelson joked that, as he led congregants through the evening, he empathized a little bit with late-night talk show hosts.

“The late-night hosts do a lot better up in front of an audience,” he laughed. “(Without that), it’s not the same. You don’t get the live feedback. It’s the same with a Zoom seder.”

Adelson, however, was pleased with Beth Shalom’s second-night Zeder.

“The idea of community right now is essential,” he said. “We’re grasping at ways to connect. I think we did well using the tools we have.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

read more: