Every year on Passover, Jews ask the same question that is at the heart of the recitation of the Haggadah during the seder: Why is this night different from all other nights? But this year, we’ll also be asking ourselves, why is this Passover different from any other we’ve ever experienced?
The answer is that, sadly, most of us will be celebrating alone or only with those who live with us. The normal experience of gathering with extended families and friends to commemorate the exodus from Egypt is out of the question. As a result of the spread of the coronavirus, almost all of us are in one form of quarantine or another, practicing social distancing, staying at home or in a complete lockdown, as is the case with Israelis.
That has set up a conflict between religious authorities about how much leeway to give people to create virtual seders via Internet apps like Zoom. But while that has created an interesting debate, it misses the point about the impact that the pandemic will have on non-Orthodox Jewry, which makes up almost 90 percent of the Jewish population in the United States.
The Pew Research Center’s definitive 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” detailed the importance of Passover to a population that is increasingly made of non-affiliated persons it labeled “Jews of no religion.” The study found that attending a Passover seder was the most commonly practiced form of Jewish observance—70 percent of those who were polled said they attended a seder in the previous year. That compares to 53 percent who fasted for even part of Yom Kippur, and 23 percent who attended a religious service once a month or lived in a household where Sabbath candles were lit. Indeed, even 42 percent of those who said they did not consider their Jewish identity or ties to be a function of religion said they took part in a seder.
As such, Passover seders represent a singular opportunity for Jews to connect with their heritage. Even if some of them are highly abridged and more about a festive family meal than observing the obligation to remember the passage of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, they perform a vital function. The exercise of taking part in the holiday is a reminder not merely of our past, but of the interconnected nature of Jewish historic memory.
The Haggadah teaches us to understand that the story that we retell involves each one of us individually. Even those with little affection for observance and organized religion understand the power of treating the Exodus as a personal experience. That makes each seder a rare chance for Jews with few links to Judaism to reconnect with faith and Jewish peoplehood.
But without our loved ones and the meal, will the millions of Jews with minimal ties to Jewish identity bother to go through the exercise by themselves? It is likely that many will not.
Are virtual seders the answer to this problem? According to some religious authorities, the answer is “yes.”
Even some Orthodox rabbis ruled that if devices were turned on before the observances begin on Passover eve and then left on for the duration of the holiday, taking part in a live and interactive Internet seder was permitted.
But both Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and his Mizrachi counterpart quickly denounced this liberal ruling. Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef answered that using electronic equipment when such activity was normally forbidden was a desecration of the holiday. While their statement caused some of those Orthodox rabbis to back down on their endorsement of the innovation, two stuck to their guns. Rabbis Yehuda Shlush and Rafael de Loya doubled down on the idea saying, that “against the background noises by the chief rabbis and others, we are sticking to our opinion and ruling that Zoom and similar products are permitted during the seder.”
This is a fascinating discussion, but the fact is, it will have little impact on Jews who don’t abide by the decisions of any rabbi, no matter which movement they are affiliated with. Those who are already observant can make do with an isolated seder. But for the non-affiliated and those of “no religion,” Zoom is, at least in this time of affliction and worry, the best option.
For those who want to be with loved ones and friends, if only by virtual means, this seder is also an opportunity. At a time when the members of many if not most American families are scattered around the country, if not the world, multi-generational seders in which families are united has already become a thing of the past.
This year is a chance to change that. Organizing such a seder isn’t that difficult. You need to set up a meeting place with a link that all invited participants can click on and join together for the reading and perhaps even the festive meal. Coordinate a common text to read and make sure that everyone has access to the basics of putting together a seder plate and table.
With the rising toll of coronavirus illnesses and ensuing deaths, and with our connection to the rest of family and society severed, this is a terribly sad time. Yet those who feel comfortable doing so can create a seder that will be memorable in a good way. In a virtual sense, our Passover tables can be bigger and more inclusive than ever in 2020. The same goes for our ability to influence those with tenuous ties to Judaism and Jewish identity.
Passover is the ultimate family education experience. This year, it can help us be close with our families even though we are apart. Out of sadness, grief and isolation can come a chance for connection, joy and remembrance of this sacred festival of freedom.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.