On the morning of Aliza Kline’s Passover Seder, a message went out to her dinner guests detailing that evening’s plan. Half the note was technical instructions (“We suggest that each person has their own laptop or tablet.”) The other half was a list of traditional foods that would be needed for the ceremony (“But don’t stress if you can’t find anything on this list,” she added. “We're in a pandemic, after all.”) No one was invited to join in person.
Two weeks earlier, Kline had launched Seder2020, an online platform for Jews like herself who found themselves separated from their families by a global pandemic right in time for Passover, the most communal of Judaism’s holidays. She’d even posted a guide to virtual Seders that began with a comforting sentence: “Jews have been adapting to changing circumstances for over 5,000 years. You can do this. This night indeed is different from all other nights.”
Typically, Kline would host two dozen guests for Passover, from her four-year-old nephew to her octogenarian parents, for a loud, delicious, cramped Seder in her Brooklyn apartment. This year, on Wednesday, 60 people attended via videoconference from California, British Columbia, Florida, and elsewhere. Her parents tuned in from four blocks away. Kline had never met nearly half of the guests, who had RSVPed through Seder2020. With coronavirus confining one-third of the global population in their homes, Kline’s guests peered into her dining room through cameras on their laptops, tablets, and phones, trying to recreate the holiday’s warmth and spirit.
On March 12, New York declared a state of emergency amid an ever-rising number of COVID-19 cases. Kline runs a nonprofit called OneTable that has been organizing in-person and virtual Friday night Shabbat dinners to celebrate the Jewish sabbath since 2014. When the emergency was declared, she says, “the magnitude of the change in the world really hit us.” Her team decided to pivot from Shabbat to Passover with a new digital platform for Jews under lockdown who wanted to host or attend a virtual Seder.
The Passover Seder is the most practiced Jewish tradition in the United States. Seventy percent of American Jews participate, including nearly half of Jews who don’t identify as religious, according to the Pew Research Center. The Seder, a multi-step, multi-course ceremony and dinner, commemorates the early Israelites’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt and their 40-year trek across the desert to Israel. Every spring, Jews gather on the first and second nights of Passover to ask a question central to the holiday: Why is this night different from all other nights? Traditionally, the answer is that it celebrates freedom from slavery. This year, under the coronavirus lockdowns, the answer seemed painfully obvious: during a ceremony rooted in family, tables would be empty, loved ones would be separated by fear and distance, and others may be sick. Many people trapped at home didn’t feel free at all.
As Passover neared, congregations around the world moved their Seders to video apps such as Zoom and FaceTime. Families downloaded the technology and emailed their own versions of the Haggadah—the book of songs, prayers, and readings to conduct a Seder—to relatives down the block and thousands of miles away. Some 800 people signed up to join a virtual Seder led by the 92nd Street Y in New York City. (See pictures of families adapting to a world changed by coronavirus.)
“People are saying, ‘I can try things completely differently,’” says Kline. “People are writing [Seder prayer books], making matzo, and finding new ways of connecting.”
Kline’s Seder2020 was filled with resources: a selection of the traditional prayer books, technical instructions, recipes, and even a Passover-themed Spotify playlist. By Tuesday, the day before Passover, there were more than 800 Seders listed—from one rabbi’s “Earth Seder in a Time of Pandemic and Climate Change,” to a family’s hopeful “Seder 2020 – Next Year in Person!” There were at least five versions using the theme of the Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats, which famously aired a Passover special. Some were focused on maintaining family traditions during physical separation; others billed themselves as queer or multi-faith; a few were focused on discussing particular themes of the Passover story. Some were private events requiring a personal invite by the host, but many were open to the public.
As Kline watched the site populate with creative Seders plans, she was impressed. “No one wants to let go of this holiday and say, ‘Screw it, it’s too much this year,’” she says. “It’s the opposite—people are hungry for it.”
Kline decided to post her own. That morning, her husband ferried portions of homemade matzo ball soup to the front doors of family members across Brooklyn and picked up their Seder contributions—her mom’s haroset, a sweet apple dish, and a selection of spreads for the table from her sister. When she posted her Seder on the Seder2020 website she wrote that anyone was welcome to request a virtual seat. “The more the merrier!” her event page said. Some 10 strangers asked to join because they had nowhere else to celebrate. As 5:30 p.m. neared on the first night of Passover, four laptops were set up around Kline’s dinner table for her husband and three daughters to greet guests.
In the lead up to Passover, Jewish authorities across the globe grappled with how to celebrate the holiday as governments implemented shelter-in-place orders. Last week, the New York Board of Rabbis held a Zoom conference call with nearly 50 rabbis from all branches of Judaism, Christian pastors, and at least one Muslim imam. The fact that all three Abrahamic religions would soon celebrate a major holiday under quarantine united them. How could Passover, Easter, and Ramadan—all social, community-oriented celebrations at their core—be observed? (This year, Christian faith leaders will preach to empty pews.)
“Everybody’s trying to find some way that is compatible or appropriate for his and her community,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the organization’s executive vice president. “We’ve got to appreciate much more that we’re all children of God. We say that sometimes in a perfunctory way, but this time we really mean it. We see how much we need each other. Shelter in place applies to all people…Those are the remedies to flatten the curve of COVID.”
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, Potasnik led prayers for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Hanukah on Ground Zero to demonstrate the resilience and solidarity that would help heal a traumatized city. But this Passover, he felt, a pandemic posed a different challenge: The disease had forcibly isolated communities that comforted each other after the terror attacks. “There was a fear then, but this is almost a paralyzing fear,” he says. “People are afraid to walk outside, to talk to neighbors.”
Passover traditions are meant to adapt to surrounding circumstances, and this year tested that flexibility. Typically, a Seder retells the story of the birth and life of Moses, who led the Hebrew slaves to freedom. Each portion of the story is punctuated with small rituals—herbs dipped in salt water to symbolize bitterness, unleavened bread eaten to represent an escape from Egypt so rushed that there was no time for bread to rise. A series of 10 plagues is commemorated by dipping a finger into a wine glass and removing a drop for each. (See inside an ancient Passover tradition practiced according to biblical law.)
This year, a wave of memes, parodies, songs, and cartoons to lighten the mood swept through Facebook and email listservs, and made their way into Seder plans. Traditional table fixtures were jokingly replaced with Lysol, toilet paper, and gloves. Biblical plagues—tales of locusts, hail, livestock deaths, and rivers of blood—were traded for stock market crashes, NBA cancelations, bored kids, and mass layoffs. A faux Dr. Seuss poem joked: “At next year’s Seder we will tell, how we were all saved by Purell!”
In St. Louis, Stanley Estrin dropped that Dr. Seuss rhyme along with other graphics into a shared digital folder that he sent to a nephew who would run the tech portion of his Passover presentation. In one image that riffed off the famous dinner depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper,” Jesus sits at an empty table while his apostles call in via Zoom. In another cartoon, six laptops face each other around the Passover table. Estrin copy-and-pasted pieces of the family Haggadah, clipped audio of some interviews from podcasts, and curated new readings for his virtual Seder. By sharing his screen with the guests, they could follow along in real time while still seeing images of each other’s reactions.
The pressure, typically on his wife to cook for a dozen guests, was now on him to plan and prepare a Zoom service following traditions of the conservative branch of Judaism for two dozen people over two nights of Passover. Estrin, a retired project manager, knew what a virtual meeting needed: organization.
It was 10 a.m. in Los Angeles, noon in Chicago, 6 p.m. in London, and 8 p.m. in Jerusalem when everyone tuned into Estrin’s St. Louis Seder on Thursday. For the first time in years, his son, Daniel, who lives in Israel, and his daughter, Miriam, who lives in London, could join. The traditional Seder foods would be on everyone’s table, but the main course ranged from brunch to a late dinner. (This is the crummy history of matzo.)
Central to the tale of Passover is a series of plagues sent by God to liberate the Israelites from slavery. By the time they reached that portion of the Seder, three weeks in quarantine gave the 10 plagues in ancient Egypt new meaning. “In the past I didn’t quite relate to it,” he says. “Now we can all relate.”
Across the world, video Seders emerged as a Passover solution for all but Orthodox Jews, who do not use technology on holidays. After weeks of dueling rabbinical decrees on virtual Seders, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel banned them, leaving Orthodox Jews to celebrate only with their households. “Loneliness hurts, and an answer for that should be found, perhaps via a call through the computer on the festival’s eve, before it begins. But not by desecrating the festival,” they wrote in a statement.
Some Orthodox communities in both New York and Israel have flouted restrictions on gatherings, and those are among the neighborhoods hardest-hit by COVID-19 case. In Israel, the government imposed a curfew from 3 p.m. Wednesday through 7 a.m. Thursday, shutting down businesses and forbidding residents from traveling more than 100 meters from their homes for fear that people would gather and spread the virus. Drones, helicopters, and phone data tracking enforced the new rules.
On Wednesday night during the lockdown, Israelis opened their windows and stood on their balconies to sing “Mah Nishtana,” verses typically sung by the youngest Seder guest that ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Videos from Israel show lights flashing in hundreds of apartments and echoing voices singing along.
Many Jews end their Seders with a wish spoken in unison: “Next year in Jerusalem.” This year, the mantra had changed to “Next year together.” In Rio de Janeiro, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit led a Seder from his adopted Brazilian home. On the screen was a family that had never before congregated in one place: the rabbi’s four children, three sets of in-laws, two ex-wives, and his current wife. As their faces popped up from tables across the U.S., Edelheit marveled at the power of technology. “I can’t remember the last time I was able to look at all four of my children at a Seder table,” he said. “This is a new constellation of Seder making. And it’s quite breathtaking.”
He had cut and pasted together a new Haggadah and laced it with additional readings. A squirt of hand sanitizer subbed in for one ritual hand washing. A pandemic-themed version of the traditional questions was asked. Each query pondered the current crisis, from “Why is this night different from all other nights?” to “Why are so many people getting sick?” And, an 11th plague—COVID-19—was shouted out as an addition to the usual 10.
“We always go from a past of pain to hope,” Edelheit read. “This is relevant now not only because of coronavirus, but because the world we knew before is going to be no more. And we don't know what the next form of our world will be.”
The virtual table shared their bitterness at the circumstances—canceled jobs, postponed vacations, fear, and separation—and also the silver linings—rekindled connections, Zoom reunions, good health. But as the Seder came to a close, Edelheit’s first wife, Naomi, peered out from her home in Illinois and spoke: “I’m very grateful that after so many years all of us can do this together as one big family. I think it’s been a long time coming. I hope we can continue it.”
“I could never have imagined this,” Edelheit replied from his table in Brazil. “And now I can’t imagine not doing it.”
This project was supported in part by the National Geographic Society. Learn more about the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.