Each year on the first night of Passover, nearly 30 family members gather in Susan Wasser’s Hyannis home.
“My favorite part—most people will say it’s the food—but I think it’s the singing, especially… after a few glasses of wine [it] gets a little fun,” she said. “And I think it’s just being all together, doing the same thing every year.”
Celebrations of Passover— a week-long festival of food, games, performance, and prayers by Jews around the world—begin Wednesday night. But as COVID-19 forces social distancing, many Jews are cooking unusually small meals and turning to Zoom and other solutions to connect with loved ones for ritual dinners called Seders.
Wasser’s family is now trying to recreate their family’s Seder over screens.
“As long as we get to see everybody up there it’s going to be, I guess, doable,” she said. “We obviously don’t want to be doing this every year, but we’re going to make the best of it. … We’ll just go through it the way we have.”
Jews use Seder gatherings to remember how their forebears suffered, endured, and then were freed from slavery in Egypt.
When Jews left Egypt with their freedom, said Rafael J. Cantor, the rabbi at Tifereth Israel Congregation in New Bedford, they didn’t know where to go. Anxiety and uncertainty hung over them.
“I think in a very real way not knowing the future is a similarity between the … experience of Israelites in Egypt and our experience right now with the coronavirus.”
To help people feel connected, the rabbi is hosting a Zoom-Seder for more than 40 friends and members of his congregation. Across the region, Chabad houses, synagogues, and Jewish Life Centers are following suit with password-protected video conferences to help Jews who observe the holiday maintain a sense of community.
Many rabbis hosting these Seders say they’re planning to work themes from the current moment into messaging about the original Passover story.
“[In Egypt], our whole lives were dictated by somebody else, and that was a feeling of being constrained and constricted,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, who serves Nantucket’s Congregation Shirat Ha Yam. “What did we want, but to feel free?”
This year more than ever, said Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor, he wants the holiday’s origins to remind people to stay hopeful.
“We feel ourselves—just like our ancestors—marching towards freedom because there is an end to this,” he said. “There is freedom in the distance. We know it’s there. We just have to get through this.”
This is far from the first time, the rabbi added, that Jews have needed to celebrate Passover under duress.
They always found a way, even without Zoom.