Faced with having a seder alone this year due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, Basya Nemoy, an Orthodox Jew who does not use technology on the holiday, came up with her own way to create a virtual communal seder experience.
“This upcoming Pesach is very difficult for me,” Nemoy posted on the Facebook group Jewish Pittsburgh on March 24. “Living alone, I will be making a solo seder. Not because of a lack of invitations, but because of the external circumstances that don’t allow for those invitations. And, as much as we can understand, and rationalize what’s going on, the bottom line is, no amount of rationalization will make it any less lonely when it comes time to make kiddush … ”
The prospect of a seder alone left her feeling sad and isolated, she said.
Nemoy is a nurse at a local nursing home. She understands that need for social distancing and the shelter at home order issued by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf but wanted to find some way to lessen the impact of those guidelines on her Passover celebration.
“I was trying to figure out what would happen this year with seder,” Nemoy told the Chronicle. “I’m a single person and have never had a seder by myself. I’ve been alone for Shabbat, but Passover is something else. I couldn’t fathom it.”
Nemoy even turned down an invitation to share the holiday with her daughter, knowing the importance of remaining in isolation to curb the spread of the virus.
With the prospect of being alone being “very, very distressing,” Nemoy decided to find a way to build community anyway.
“It popped into my head that if I couldn’t have people physically at the seder with me, if I had their thoughts with me, I could feel their spirit,” she said.
A challenge for Nemoy was that she couldn’t stream a seder with others through Zoom or Facebook. She had read varying halachic interpretations of what was or wasn’t allowed based on how liberal or conservative the rabbi issuing the ruling was, but rather than unintentionally err, she decided to do what some Jews have done for centuries: build a fence around the Torah and not introduce technology to her seder.
Instead, the digital scrapbooker came up with the idea of creating an online, community Haggadah. The document, designed in Google Docs, allows people to add their own traditions and thoughts.
“People could add their thoughts ahead of time,” Nemoy explained. “I could print it out and have it prepared for the seder and mitigate some of the loneliness and stress of doing a seder by myself. My intention is to try and feel this connection even within our isolation.”
Nemoy said that she has numerous Haggadahs collected over the years and they all have inspirational verses that she could use for guidance and strength. That, however, wasn’t what she was seeking.
“I’m looking for a personal connection,” she said. “I want people to share something that’s important to them.”
People began responding to Nemoy’s emotional post almost immediately.
“I’ve had some people add to the document. I’m hoping the further out it goes, the more people might respond,” she said.
Nemoy is a member of Congregation Poale Zedeck and pointed out that one of the contributors was the congregation’s rabbi, Daniel Yolkut.
While Nemoy is interested in continuing the project beyond this year and possibly creating a PDF that could be shared, she is focused on Passover 2020 and the special circumstances caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“A seder alone is a very lonely thing. This is a way to create connections,” she said, adding that she would like to extend those connections outside of her immediate community.
“I’m Orthodox, a lot of my religious community is Orthodox. I would really like to have non-Orthodox people share their experiences. I have a friend who is non-practicing and she sent me her memories from when she was a little girl. I’m going to add those into the Haggadah,” said Nemoy.
Despite the requirement to self-distance and forgo the communal traditions celebrated for generations, Nemoy is hopeful that her Haggadah, and perhaps the experiences others create, might outlast the outbreak.
“This virus is pulling us apart in many ways but it’s creating new opportunities,” she said.
To add to the Haggadah, email Nemoy at email@example.com for a link. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.