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Passover in quarantine: Everything you need to know about hosting a ‘virtual’ seder

The Passover story, with its focus on plagues and hardship, feels particularly poignant in an age of the coronavirus pandemic.

How does one honor Passover when resources for food are limited and there are public health orders against welcoming people into your home? We’ve got some suggestions for this year’s observance.
How does one honor Passover when resources for food are limited and there are public health orders against welcoming people into your home? We’ve got some suggestions for this year’s observance.
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Although most U.S. states are under stay-at-home orders and people are encouraged to practice social distance measures, that doesn’t preclude Jewish Americans from celebrating one of their most significant holidays of the year: Passover.

Pesach, as it’s called in Hebrew, is observed from sundown Wednesday, April 8 to Thursday, April 16. The traditional Passover seder (or ceremonial dinner) includes specific symbolic foods and biblical plot points about what happened with Moses and Pharaoh before God freed the enslaved Jews more than 3,000 years ago.

“It is the master story of the Jewish people going from degradation to redemption, and it mirrors our own personal journeys,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest stream of Judaism in North America.

“When we ask people, ‘What is the most important part of your Jewish identity?,’” Jacobs continued, “the dominant answer is, ‘Standing up for equality, pursuing justice and standing up for the rights of the marginalized.’ These are core Jewish commitments. And if you ever had a ritual that teaches those commitments, it is Passover.”

By participating in the seder, which means “order” in Hebrew — all its rituals are performed step by step. Seder guests take turns telling the story of the Exodus and the Israelites’ new relationship with God based on the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Passover story, with its focus on plagues and hardship, feels particularly poignant in an age of the coronavirus pandemic.

But how does one honor the holiday when resources for food are limited and there are public health orders against welcoming people into your home?

We talked with Jason Leivenberg, who leads an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater LA called NuRoots, about how to host a modernized seder while under quarantine.

First off: Is video chat kosher?

For certain denominations of Judaism, using electricity on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays is a no-no. But there are prominent groups of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis who have okayed the use of video chat just for this year, with the Rabbinical Assembly noting that “ideally, the video option should be accessed in a way that does not involve direct interaction with an electronic device.” (I.e. Siri could potentially be used to activate the stream.)

If you decide use video conference as part of your Passover, Leivenberg recommends Zoom, which he and his Jewish Federation colleagues successfully used recently with more than 100 attendees for an abbreviated seder.

How to get set up on Zoom

In order to use Zoom, you’ll need a laptop or computer with a webcam, an accessory webcam, a smartphone or a tablet with a built-in camera.

Begin by going to the Zoom website or downloading the app and registering your account. From there, once registered, click “Host a Meeting” and send out the invite URL to others to join. (Or you can await your invite on the other side, if you’re a participant. The meeting can be joined on a host of devices.) Invitees don’t even need to be on a laptop, or use the app. They can simply call in on a phone number as well.

In order to make sure your conference isn’t easily hacked, adjust the screen share options under “Advanced settings” so that only the Host can share the screen. (Read more about privacy measures to take while using Zoom here.)

You can get creative on camera

Make sure you do an audio test and have decent lighting before you start your Passover call. If you don’t like your regular background, go to “Preferences” and consider uploading a photo or maybe even a themed graphic that you can use as a Zoom background.

”There’s opportunities in Zoom for you to raise your hand or ask a question or use the chat box,” says Leivenberg. “If you have enough time to prep, you could technically change your virtual background as you’re telling the Passover story.”

Another benefit to Zoom: You can share your screen and allow others to read from your Haggadah. But if you want everyone to have their own copy of the seder guide, send PDFs around (see next item).

If you didn’t get a chance to plan ahead, you can still download and print your personalized Haggadah for free at Haggdot.com.
If you didn’t get a chance to plan ahead, you can still download and print your personalized Haggadah for free at Haggdot.com.
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Share digital Haggadahs with virtual guests

Jewish families own haggadahs, books that recount the Exodus. Each participant in the seder gets a copy and follows along as family and friends read and explain the symbolism of the foods on the table. Some haggadahs are beautifully illustrated books with added commentary and poems. Others are simpler booklets that supermarkets in areas with significant Jewish populations give away, such as the well-known one published by Maxwell House coffee.

Leivenberg already mailed his family and friends the same Haggadah for his virtual seder, but for those who didn’t get a chance to plan so far ahead he suggests sending attendees the same online Haggadah. One free option is available on Haggadot.com, a site that lets users create their own Passover book to download and print.

If you’re having trouble tracking down items for a traditional seder plate — shank bone, egg, bitter herbs, vegetable, a sweet paste called haroset and hazeret (another form of the bitter herbs) — one expert suggest reimagining the foods. For example, instead of tracking down a shankbone, maybe try a roasted carrot.
If you’re having trouble tracking down items for a traditional seder plate — shank bone, egg, bitter herbs, vegetable, a sweet paste called haroset and hazeret (another form of the bitter herbs) — one expert suggest reimagining the foods. For example, instead of tracking down a shankbone, maybe try a roasted carrot.
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Don’t stress over the seder plate

Food supplies are limited and multiple trips to the grocery store are discouraged these days. Traditionally the seder plate includes:

  • Haroset, an amalgam of fruit, nuts and wine that recalls the mortar the slaves used to build for Pharoah.
  • A hard-boiled or roasted egg, which represents spring and was an object of a sacrifice.
  • A shankbone, which symbolizes the animal sacrifice the Israelites made before they left Egypt.
  • A bitter herb, to remind of the bitterness of slavery.
  • Karpas, a green vegetable that also invokes spring and is dipped in salt water to recall the tears of the enslaved Israelites.
  • A second green vegetable, typically Romaine lettuce, which is eaten with matzo and the bitter herb.

So instead of worrying about having every single seder plate item, Leivenberg suggests reimagining the harder-to-get foods. For example, instead of tracking down a shankbone, maybe try a roasted carrot.

“Roasted carrots symbolize not just the animal sacrifice of ancient times — which is what the shank bone is supposed to symbolize — but also the value of sensitivity to nature,” he says.

Leivenberg’s NuRoots group offers plenty of other plate replacement ideas online, and other Jewish organizations have additional suggestions for plate items with modern meanings, from a spoon to an orange.

Your matzo ball soup may or may not contain vegetables this year, at that’s OK, according to one expert.
Your matzo ball soup may or may not contain vegetables this year, at that’s OK, according to one expert.
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The menu can be simple

Passover foods are still available in many supermarkets. However, that doesn’t mean your menu needs to be several courses of complicated kosher foods. Your ingredient list is likely limited.

As for Leivenberg, he’s planning to make matzo ball soup but knows he’s missing vegetables that the recipe calls for. That’s OK, he says, because the dinner meal should be open to interpretation. “Make whatever is going to make you feel nourished.”

But if you’re feeling adventurous, kosher.com and Bon Appetit have plenty of kosher recipe options.

Hide the afikomen a bit differently

No, you won’t be able to physically hide the afikomen, or dessert matzo, for people to find in your home. So what do you do?

Leivenberg offers an idea he heard at a Haggadot.com webinar: Pick a hiding place in your mind and play ‘20 Questions’ to have people guess where the afikomen is, whether it be a place in the house that everyone knows or somewhere in the world, “Carmen Sandiego”- style (like the popular kids’ TV geography game show “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”).

Remember what you’re celebrating

“Passover commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery into Egypt,” says Leivenberg. “The holiday really is a lot about redemption and resilience and community and regrowth.”

Today, amid global uncertainty, it seems especially important to celebrate those themes.

Contributing: Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY, Jeanne Muchnick, Rockland/Westchester Journal News; Lauren Markoe

Read more at usatoday.com