The central question asked at a Passover seder is: What makes this night different than all other nights?
There is no question of what will make this year’s seder different.
The coronavirus designated as COVID-19 already has been referred to as an 11th plague added to the 10 that, as the story is told, God visited upon the Egyptians to persuade a recalcitrant pharaoh to release the Jewish people from their servitude.
Passover seders often are cherished family memories. But this will be remembered as the year when a public health crisis prevented generations of family from gathering together; when those who did take seats did their best to keep a safe distance from others; when those who did not travel watched on a computer screen as the story of the exodus from Egypt was retold; when perhaps paper and plastic were favored over china, glass and metal; when communal plates of ritual foods were eschewed in favor of individual servings; and when the scramble to find the afikomen might have been a bit less rambunctious.
Rabbi Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Hadash, who also is a medical doctor and
bioethicist, said that Jews have no choice but to be mindful of the threat posed by the coronavirus.
“In a globalized world, when isolation and physical distance is required to combat this COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be mindful of preserving the principal pikuach nefesh, saving lives. The Passover seder this year should be taken as a shahat hadchak, an emergency situation in which we limit the number of people around the table to our immediate family. Some families that might be comfortable using technology could take advantage of Zoom or other ways to communicate with their virtual guests. More than ever, Pesach this year should provide us with an opportunity to reflect on bonds and boundaries, freedom and pollution, opulence and scarceness, arrogance and humility,” Bortz said.
Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, acknowledged the Passover balancing act that the coronavirus causes. “We are required to subordinate all other mitzvot to safeguarding health and life, with only a few exceptions. So we have an ethical obligation to avoid risking disease in our current circumstances. But Judaism is a dynamic, creative religion. So how do we
maintain our religious and ethical obligations, and still celebrate Passover to the extent possible?
“First, we must limit the size and scope of our seders to those with whom we would interact anyway. It is a year for intimate seders, focusing more on the family (highlight the four children, for example). Or, for those who do not avoid electronics on the holiday, invite others to share your seder virtually – singing and reading together is a large part of the experience. So what if you will need separate afikomens,” Wolpe said.
Rabbi Pamela Gottfried of Congregation Bet Haverim, and the Your Jewish Bridge initiative, noted a particular difficulty. “A lot of my educational/pastoral work is with Jews by Choice and candidates for conversion, who were planning to attend a community seder as their first Passover experience. [Now I am] coaching them to prepare to lead a seder at home,” she said.
The haggadah says: “And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt.”
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel advised that there are guidelines for those whose seder may be a smaller affair than intended. “Our sages in the tractate Pesachim (116a) state, ‘If the son is wise, he asks his father the four questions. If the son is not capable of asking, the wife asks her husband. If the wife cannot ask her husband, the man asks himself.’ As my grand Pesach seder populated with children and grandchildren evaporates before my eyes, I am adjusting to my new reality. If G-d has decided that this year my wife will ask me the four questions, I will thank him that I have her to ask me and that I have the privilege to answer. We serve G-d in the circumstances that He dictates. One who is alone may also have a seder and revel in the retelling of the story and feel as though he personally left Egypt,” Friedman said.
For those struggling with “food insecurity” – the oft-used euphemism for hunger –Passover is another day of challenge. To meet their need, Jewish Family & Career Services, through its Maos Chitim (Hebrew for “wheat money”) program, will distribute checks to about 550 households, of some 1,050 individuals. JF&CS also will deliver 150 bags of kosher-for-Passover food to households in need, whose ranks include families with children, individual adults, senior citizens and Holocaust survivors. An estimated $75,000 was raised last year to meet this year’s Passover need. JF&CS foresees needing $80,000 for next year.
The elderly, even those without chronic health problems, are the group most vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. For that reason, Seder this year at Berman Commons, an assisted-living residence operated by Jewish HomeLife, will be for residents only.
“Additionally, we strongly discourage families from taking your resident home for your own Seder. Each time a resident leaves our building, they return with the potential to expose our entire community to the virus. Though we cannot force a resident to stay, we ask you to please consider the welfare of all our residents and let your loved one enjoy the Seder with us,” read a letter to residents and their families from Rhett Scircle, Berman Commons executive director.
“We are exploring using live-stream or other technology so family members can participate in our first night Seder virtually,” Scircle said. “I know this is not what you had hoped. Berman Commons has a long tradition of hosting wonderful Seders with our families. We appreciate you helping us remain virus-free by allowing your family member to participate with us. I assure you that we will make this Seder as lovely as all the others.”
Posing a question on Facebook to Atlanta area Jews, the AJT received numerous tales of altered Passover plans. Typical of them was that from Rebecca Leary, who responded: “We hadn’t gotten too far in Seder planning, except to book plane tickets for my mother. From NY. She’s 81 and has COPD. Flights are cancelled. No idea what we’re all doing now.”
A sampling of other responses:
“Our plans were complicated due to multiple cities and multiple family members all with plans of their own, … but we were going to make it work out so that we’d host the second-night seder. ALL of the plans have been canceled now and it will likely be just the 5 of us. Sigh.”
“Small Seder. My guests cancelled. Sister may not fly in. Dad coming. He’s 99 (kaynahora). Already bought matza. It will be the smallest Seder I’ve ever hosted but hopefully we will FaceTime with grandchildren.”
“We are cancelled. No way for family to get here. First time ever that we won’t be together for Passover.”
“My family’s tentative plan is to do a virtual Seder and then have a real Seder in a few months.”
The latter comment prompted a discussion of the cost and capabilities of social meeting platforms more commonly used by businesses to conduct meetings. This will be the year that instead of hugs and kisses from their grandparents, grandchildren will wave to them through the camera on a computer or cellphone.
Aside from her family seder, Corey-Jan Albert of Roswell has for about 25 years also produced a unique “Diaspora Journey” seder attended by anywhere from 25 to 40 people.
“What I usually tell people is that this is based on the idea that, when you think about it, the Passover seder is the world’s original dinner theater experience. So, instead of being structured for a ‘leader’ and multiple ‘congregants,’ this haggadah is structured as a play that takes place at five different seder tables through history. And instead of reading in turn around the table, participants are assigned specific roles that they will play throughout the evening. Its first iteration was as my thesis for my master’s degree in theater and
performance studies (emphasis on playwriting), but it took on its own life from there,” she said.
In the past, Albert also has organized the production for synagogues and other organizations. But not this year.
“After hard consideration and given the need to ‘flatten the curve’ on the spread of the coronavirus, we’ve made the difficult decision to not hold it this year. Our main thought was that hard as it was to call it off, if anyone got sick as a result of being with 25 to 30 other people at our house, we would find it even harder to forgive ourselves. For the time being, a very small group of us has been discussing getting together and doing a combination of reading and discussion. But this, too, may fall by the wayside, depending on how things go,” she said.