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American seders go online on a Passover night different from all others

Rabbi Michael Moskowitz answers questions during the final portion of a virtual Friday night Shabbat service where viewers can ask the rabbis questions about anything relating to Judaism inside Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, U.S. on March 27, 2020 amid a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak across the country. (REUTERS/Emily Elconin)

BY BARBARA GOLDBERG

Esther Greenberg loves watching her children and grandchildren gather around the Passover seder table and slurp her matzoh ball soup.

“Seeing everybody who is me, everybody who is part of who I am,” she said in summing up the beauty of her annual seder table.

But this year is different. Greenberg will only get to watch her offspring on a computer screen through the digital platform Zoom. Like millions of other American Jews, Greenberg is hosting an online seder next week as her family maintains social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Passover is a week-long Jewish spring holiday to commemorate the biblical story of the exodus of Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It is marked by at least one seder that is typically led by a family matriarch or patriarch. Relatives and sometimes friends gather to retell the biblical story, join in Hebrew prayers and songs, and then enjoy a feast.

“At seder we sing, and every time I say, ‘Let’s sing this song,’ the faces are, ‘Oy, do we have to?’ And before you know it, they are all singing, they are all happy. And then, it’s time to eat,” said Greenberg, 73, choking back tears.

Greenberg, a retired office manager who lives with her husband, Bob, 75, a retired pharmacist, in the Long Island, New York, suburb of Woodbury, said her 10-year-old grandson had taught her how to use Zoom, and one sleepless night this week the idea of a “Zoom seder” popped into her head.

“And I don’t have to even set the table!” said Greenberg, whose freezer is packed with 60 matzoh balls, brisket, apple crisp with matzoh and other treats she started cooking weeks ago. She hopes her family will eat the food at a later date.

Passover seders are the most popular tradition for American Jews, with 70% of the 5.3 million Jewish Americans saying they joined one the previous year, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey.

Not all Jews will participate in streaming seders. Many Orthodox Jews, who closely follow the edicts of the Torah, will not use computers for a seder because it would break their normal ban on using electricity on Jewish holidays, even as they observe stay-at-home orders that prevent them from inviting extended family. Some Orthodox rabbis, however, have recently said that streaming will be allowed under certain circumstances.

In St. Louis, Marcia Moskowitz, 80, and her husband, Carl Moskowitz, 84, will also use Zoom to share the traditional fourth cup of wine in a seder with family members scattered from New York to Michigan.

“There is nothing like hugging the children and grandchildren myself. But that is out of the question this year,” said Marcia Moskowitz, a retired high school teacher and mother of two rabbis.

Her son Rabbi Michael Moskowitz of Temple Shir Shalom in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield Township, said his synagogue has already used YouTube and Facebook Live to bring services to worshippers during the pandemic. He said people are seeking community amid a crisis, and his online success so far convinced him to hold a Zoom seder with “breakout rooms” for smaller groups like preschool parents who want to hold a children’s seder.

He said families should not worry or feel guilty if they do not have all of the symbolic items traditionally arranged on the seder plate – such as a roasted shankbone, which represents the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb before the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

“Health is first. We cannot leave our homes. So if you don’t have a shankbone, don’t run out to the store,” said Rabbi Moskowitz, adding that a drawing of a shankbone would suffice. “Telling the story is the most important part.”

In Austin, Texas, Rabbi Lev Baesh is hosting a Zoom seder through the community advocacy site WakingGiants.me. He said the biblical Passover story of fleeing Hebrews wandering in the wilderness is relevant and helpful for Americans facing uncertainties in the pandemic.

“It’s a way of helping us adjust to and understand and experience wilderness, and find the tools that we need to be able to move forward, even though we don’t know where we are going,” Baesh said.

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey, has been offering online seders since 2009 as a way of including more worshippers at a time of declining synagogue membership across the United States, but Rabbi Daniel Cohen expects a flood of participants to join next week’s Zoom seder.

“Tenacity, figuring out what matters most and then focusing on that and working to achieve it. That’s the story of Passover,” he said. “That’s also what we’re all living right now.”

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