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Rabbis allowing Zoom, technology on Passover during quarantine

Many families are turning to video conference to celebrate Passover Seders because of the coronavirus. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Wednesday was the first night of Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrated with what is called a seder: big groups of family and friends sitting around the table, reading the story of Passover aloud. Songs are sung, prayers are said, symbolic foods are eaten, and a large feast is served that traditionally includes dishes like matzo ball soup and gefilte fish.

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Now that we’re in quarantine, we can’t gather. So how are people going to practice the seder ritual this year if they are separated from their family or, worse, all alone?

“There’s the rise of the Zoom seder or the ‘zeder’ as people are calling it,” said Stephanie Butnick, deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and co-host of of Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast.

“The question we keep getting is, ‘How are we all going to sing together?’ Because a big part of a Passover seder is the singing; you sing Dayenu, you sing Chad Gadya,” she said. “When you sing on Zoom, even when you try and talk at the same time, there’s a weird lag, you can’t really interrupt. But you have to remember that this is fun! It’s supposed to be fun and uplifting. Yes, it’s a serious event, but we’re supposed to be around the table singing and, yes, this year it might be we’re sitting at a laptop singing and Uncle Myron’s frozen on the screen. But it’s fun and we’re going to, I think, find a beauty and a sustenance in this ritual that’s new this year.”

For orthodox and Sephardic Jews, a sector of Judaism that originates from places like Spain and Turkey, Jewish law prohibits the use of technology on holidays. But something unprecedented happened this week.

“A number of Sephardic rabbis announced that in situations of mental health, in situations of elderly people in isolation, it would be permitted to do Zoom for the seder,” said Rabbi Ben Hassan of Seattle’s Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue. “To make sure that no one would be mentally or physically isolated to the point where there would be concern for their long term mental health.”

Rabbi Hassan’s own mother will be alone on the holiday, across the country in Florida.

“I put on Facebook recently, ‘Please reach out to me if you have any concerns about spending Pesach alone and know that there are options for you.’ And a huge amount of people reached out to me privately saying people don’t talk about mental health, people don’t talk about the difficulties of spending a holiday alone,” he said. “It doesn’t mitigate the entire thing, but to know you’re not alone is a major factor for mental health.”

For a lot of people, this will be the first time they’ll have to cook the holiday meal, or the first time they haven’t spent the holiday with parents or grandparents.

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“The Hebrew phrase Gam zeh ya’avor, ‘This too shall pass.’ I think we’re going to get through this,” Rabbi Hassan said. “In the first ever Passover story, how did the Israelites spend Passover? They had to lock themselves in their homes and they could not go out, so they would not be killed. That’s the message I’ve been telling everyone in Seattle. We stay in our homes and this plague will pass, coronavirus will pass. In two or three months, we’ll be able to celebrate together as a community once again. These memories will last with us a lifetime.”

A plague, indeed: The story of Passover includes The Ten Plagues.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like William Shatner, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram.

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