Passover is a cherished Jewish holiday that celebrates our journey from the bitterness of slavery to the sweetness of freedom, a paradoxical theme amidst the plague of COVID-19. During this global pandemic, we are socially distant and socially isolated, and yet we have become socially closer. No way Jews are going to give up the most widely celebrated religious holiday in America, thanks to virtual seders via video chat, we still can be together with loved ones near and far.

The Passover seder, which takes place in the Hebrew month of Nisan, is a time of miracles, and this is exactly what the world needs. Passover 5780 will go down in history as the only time the table is set with candles, wine, seder plate, matzah, Elijah’s cup… and a laptop computer. 

“Every single person is going to be observing Passover with the absence of someone and not having guests. The Passover seder is, by definition, a time to broaden family and hospitality and extend a warm welcome to strangers as well. So this is an opportunity to think about those who are living in isolation” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. “It would be a shame that when this plague ends, we go back to our old ways. On Passover, we rededicate ourselves to caring for those who are lonely, and we all can do a better job of that.” 

In these unprecedented times of fear and the unknown, the story of Exodus has never resonated more meaningful and personal. Even the 10th plague, the angel of death, passed over the Jews because they stayed home. God is talking to us. 

While this year's Passover, which begins the evening of April 8, will be bittersweet, like the maror and charoset on our seder plate, it will also go down in history as an opportunity for rebirth, growth and rededication as our ancestors intended. The rituals we follow in the seder will force us to look outside ourselves, as our concerns focus on those who are suffering. Passover is also an opportunity to appreciate everything God has given us, mainly our health, each other and the last can of matzo meal on the store shelf. 

Despite these difficult circumstances of coronavirus, these St. Louis families are creating special Passover memories. 

Zoom seder becomes a ‘Zeder’

For many decades, Jesse and Debbie Barash have hosted a large, lively Passover seder at the home of the matriarch of the family, Debbie’s mom, Toby Katz. When Katz moved to Gatesworth a few years ago, the close-knit family of 15 flocked to a private dining room in the independent living facility for a potluck feast and service led by Jesse.  Now the extended family and friends will eat, pray and kibbitz through a Zoom seder, or “Zeder,” a term they have coined. 

“Toby always looks forward to her favorite holiday Passover, and at 85 years old, this time together with her becomes even more special,” said Jesse Barash, who is busy rehearsing the audio and visuals so that participants in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Oregon and Washington are all in sync. “We are determined to make it work.”

For these empty nesters, one of the biggest challenges is how to accommodate the different time zones where their two adult children live. Their daughter Abbie, 31, lives in Portland, Ore., and their son Daniel, 34, resides in Olympia, Wash., which is two hours earlier than St. Louis. 

“This virtual seder is a real opportunity for us because normally neither of them is able to fly in town for Passover. We are thrilled to have our children join us, even if it’s for five minutes to say hi or to stay for the service,” said Debbie Barash.

While Jesse masters the technicalities and makes sure his mother-in-law has headphones for her iPad, Debbie is in charge of the menu, even if it’s for a table for two. Matzah ball soup, Passover rolls, charoset, gefilte fish, chicken, roasted vegetable, potato, salad, and some kind of dessert, probably macaroons. “I’m keeping the food simple, and instead of 17 boxes of matzah that we usually have, this year we will have one,” said Debbie, a Zumba instructor who now teaches online “Zoomba.”

Another special part of the evening that will not change is the opportunity for everyone to read from the Haggadah, including their cousin Laurie Burstein. 

“We Jews are a very adaptable lot out of necessity, and this time is no different. Even though I sometimes really don’t like all the technology and screens that we are so addicted to, I am now very thankful that we have it,” said Burstein, who will be at home with her husband and son. “I will miss the communal meal because I love to taste everyone’s special dishes, but then again it’s just great that we can still connect.”

The J hosts virtual communal family seder 

“One of the key lessons of Passover is to celebrate and appreciate our freedom.  During this pandemic, our lives have been turned upside down.  Many of our normal routines and freedoms are on hold.  When we tell the story of our ancestors and the hardships they endured I would hope that people around the seder table will gain an even deeper appreciation of our own freedoms we enjoy today, which will return to us all soon,” said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of Jewish Engagement and Adult Programs at the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis. 

For the last six years, Horwitz has spent the first night of seder with 15 to 30 people, including family members and guests. This year he will be at home with his wife and three teenage sons. On the second night, he expects way more than a hundred people to join the J’s community seder via Zoom live and online.  

“This year will break the record,” said Horwitz, who will be co-leading the seder with local song leader Sharol Brickman.

Everyone is welcome, regardless of age, knowledge or background. Activities, videos and conversation will be geared towards families with children ages 5 to 18.   

“Even in the virtual universe there are easy ways to make the seder an interactive experience,” Horwitz added.  “I always attempt to be creative and fun, and this year will be no different. Plus, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

To register, visit https://jccstl.com/community/your-virtual-j/ and click on the Jewish life section. 

Passover theme is connection

“Every year I introduce a theme for our seder table that directly relates to Pesach and encourages discussion, personal insight and growth,” said Mimi Pultman, who will host a seder with her husband Andy and their two sons, Caleb, a college senior, and Chase, a senior at Lafayette High School. “Our family loves a lively seder table full of debate.”

Pultman has chosen the theme of connection for this year’s seder because, she says, it is important and timely. “We are experiencing forced separation from everyone and everything,” she said. “Through discussion and sharing, the family hopes to make sense of it all.

Typically, Pultman has 25 to 35 guests, including family, friends, and those who have nowhere else to go. For the last three years she has hosted two Washington University students from the New York area, and they join her family for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, too. 

“This year we are choosing to conduct a virtual seder in order to keep everyone safe yet maintain as much of our normal traditions as possible,” said Pultman, adding that her family will be joined by friends and family from St. Louis, Los Angeles and New Jersey via Zoom. “Right now, more than ever, we need Judaism to be our anchor during this extraordinary time.” 

What Pultman will miss most is the sharing of favorite dishes. 

“Food is absolutely the centerpiece of the seder. I love the energy of a house full of guests eating, talking and having fun,” she said. “My family will especially miss my sister-in-law Paula Kessler’s matzah ball soup, and I am sure my guests will miss my homemade chopped liver. Not eating together around a very loud and lively seder table will be the hardest part.”  

Family Haggadah and “Seder In A Box” 

For Marcie Handler, Passover usually means 30 family members from all parts of the country coming together for a joyous seder. This year will be no different, except she and her 31-year-old son Josh, who works for Major League Baseball, will be the only two at her house.

“That’s a lot less dishes to clean,” said Handler, whose husband Mike will also be away. He is a regional medical officer at St. Alexius Hospital in Schaumburg, Ill., and has been working 24/7 since the coronavirus outbreak.

Marcie Handler conducts a Zoom videoconferencing meeting with her family.

Meanwhile, Handler and her family are finalizing Passover plans over Zoom meetings. 

“My mom, who is 87, is doing great figuring it out,” she said.  “It’s pretty fun getting to see each other Brady Bunch-style on Zoom. I think it really helps us touch base with each other and be there for support and to lighten the mood.”

With the youngest a 4-year-old great nephew, relatives will join the seder from Chicago, Los Angeles, Peoria, Ill. and Atlanta. For the St. Louisans, Handler is delivering a “seder-in-a-box” to make it easier for them to prepare a meal and participate.  

“With the help of my mom and sister, we will be getting a few things to people who are in town, such as matzah, charoset, gefilte fish, horseradish, matzah ball soup, maybe some desserts and possibly a main course,” she said.

The “seder-in-a-box” will also include a copy of her family’s very own Haggadah that Handler created a couple years ago. 

“Our Haggadah is really special. Besides having some amazing pictures of our ancestors and all of us who are still here, we’ve included some cousins and friends in pictures. Also, we tailored it to what we wanted — quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Martin Luther King Jr., each one of us and more.”

Next year in Florida 

Virtual meetings are nothing new for Jennifer Hartranft, who is a teacher. Her two daughters Gaelyn, 22, and Madeline, 18, take online classes at the engineering school at Mizzou. Even her 81-year-old mom is tech savvy from FaceTiming with her grandchildren. So hooking up with extended family on Google Hangout for Passover is not a big challenge. The challenging part is not being together physically in Florida where they usually spend the holiday together. 

“This Passover will definitely be a very different experience and a little disappointing not to be with extended family, but it will make next year even more special when we can all be together again,” said Hartranft, whose family will be connecting from 11 different households in New York, Florida, Houston, and St. Louis. “We plan to use the Art Scroll Family Haggadah so everyone can take turns telling the story. We will use the china, crystal, and candlesticks that we inherited from our Bubbie and Zaydie. Our childhood memories are of spending holidays and Shabbos at their home. We try to use these pieces so we feel like they are still with us and to pass down the traditions to our children,” said Hartranft. 

Each family will make traditional foods, like matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket, potato kugel, and many of their Bubbie’s recipes that have been handed down through the generations. 

“We have decided to turn off our technology while we are eating the actual meal, and we will resume after everyone is finished eating.”

Redemption is the silver lining

For people who want to strictly observe Passover and follow rules of no technology during a major holiday, Smason offers plenty of ideas. 

“The real loneliness that people will be experiencing should not be not underestimated. We have sympathy and empathy for individuals, especially those who are in small groups or who are alone,” said Smason, who will be celebrating at home with his wife, Chani, and 19-year-old daughter Ayelet. His other eight children and 13 grandchildren live nearby, across the country and in Israel.  

“People can use a Zoom seder for extended family a couple hours before Passover begins, maybe two hours before sunset,” he suggested. “Everybody dress up with nice clothing, festive attire and all the grandparents and children can be together. Kids sing songs, ask the four questions and every family member can prepare something short. 

“We can ask contemporary questions that are relevant today, such as ‘What is freedom in our time?’ and  ‘What is your favorite spot in the Haggadah?’”

Smason says that by doing a virtual seder ahead of time, we will go into Passover with the inspiration of having seen our families and talk about things we’ve shared. “These opportunities to make special connections can be a Passover that no one will ever forget,” he added.

Smason feels that if the world, our community, each of us, walks away from this pandemic breathing only a sigh of relief when its is over, and business as usual resumes, we will have missed the point. 

“We should take away empathy and pain felt by others who are by themselves,” he said. “If all of our collective efforts to be able to observe Passover with joy as best we can, I think that we can move things a little bit closer to redemption and the miracle we are looking for will happen sooner — whether it be an open miracle or a miracle disguised in nature as God often does, such as a vaccine. 

“From a Passover point of view, we recognize how much we need and value each other and how much we value Judaism, our faith and our relationship with God. What happens when this (coronavirus) is over, is an opportunity to reach out now and be inspired. If we can hold onto that inspiration, we are going to walk away with some very valuable benefits. And that is the silver lining in what many ways is a very dark cloud.”