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'Zoomover': Still in quarantine, Jewish families prepare for a virtual Passover

"It was just a no brainer to us to switch to the digital world and continue the tradition online,” Kara Silverman, who will host a virtual Seder, said.
Image: Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother, Hana Cowart, mix dough to make matzo while watching a YouTube live video by Maureen Seehan, a director of learning at Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 31, 2020.
Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother, Hana Cowart, mix dough to make matzo while watching a YouTube live video with Maureen Seehan, a director of learning at Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 31, 2020.Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA file

For nearly a decade, Chad Martin, 37, and Kara Silverman, 36, have held an “Orphan Seder” in New York for those unable to observe Passover with their families.

But as the United States goes into its fourth week in quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, Martin and Silverman’s “Orphan Seder” won’t go on as usual.

Instead, the pair is expecting more than 50 people to join them in a video conference they’re calling “Zoomover.”

“As we slowly realized we weren’t going to be able to do it in person, it was just a no brainer to us to switch to the digital world and continue the tradition online,” Silverman said.

With no end to the coronavirus quarantine in sight and domestic and international travel grinding to a near standstill, religious holiday gatherings for traditions like Passover and Easter will, for the most part, largely take place online via video conferencing platforms like Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts.

Passover, which starts Wednesday and ends next Thursday, April 16, is the first major religious holiday to take place since the coronavirus outbreak hit the United States and many states issued stay-at-home orders. However, in some cases, certain religious groups have defied calls to disband large gatherings to continue business as usual.

In Louisiana, a pastorwas hit with six misdemeanors for six services he has held since March 16 when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced an order against gatherings of more than 50 people. That includes a Palm Sunday service that attracted hundreds.

In Florida, religious gatherings are exempt from the ban, and debate has raged as to whether the government can actually shut them down due to the coronavirus. Religious gatherings have continued in other states including Ohio and California as governors plead for them to stop.

While some religious institutions defy calls for social distancing, others are finding ways to continue observing tradition from afar.

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In New York City, which has been the center of the outbreak in the U.S., several Brooklyn-based synagogues plan to host virtual Seders, the holiday’s ritual feast, throughout Passover, according to Bklyner.

Families across the country who normally spend the High Holy Days together said they, too, would be holding their Seder online.

Nick Garber, 23, had planned to fly from Seattle to New York to observe the holiday with his family, but said he slowly realized as the coronavirus crisis worsened that he wouldn’t be able to travel.

“I think there was a pretty general reluctance to outright cancel it,” Garber said, adding that if they did cancel, it would be the first time in generations that his family wouldn’t observe the holiday together. “Like so many American-Jewish families, it’s just about the tradition and having an excuse to get together as a family.”

Garber said as the buzz around Zoom continued to grow during quarantine, his family decided holding its Seder on the platform would be as close as they could get to being together for the holiday.

“We do normally read from the Haggadah and have some version of all the different courses. I think that the Zoom version is probably going to be very abbreviated,” Garber said.

Families and friends hosting virtual Seders also said they plan to read aloud from the Haggadah, the text telling of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

Because the reading order of the Haggadah, often divided among those in attendance, can get confusing even to those celebrating in person, a digital version, Seder.live, was created especially for this year’s virtual holiday.

The developers, Noam Hod and Amos Meron, created Seder.live, a free Haggadah in English and Hebrew, which aims to help those celebrating Passover via video conference feel more connected and stay on track as they read.

Users enter a code to read the same Haggadah, and when one page is turned, everyone will see their Haggadah’s page turn, too.

“We went into this week-and-a-half marathon before Passover Eve to be ready in time with this product,” Meron said. “Now, there’s no excuse not to know where we are in the Haggadah.”

Keeping the traditions of Passover alive is part of why Jessica Cohn of Los Angeles decided she would transition her in-person celebration online.

Cohn, 36, who is hosting a virtual Passover for about 18 of her friends, said she doesn’t want her celebration to feel like a webinar, and almost canceled the event when she realized she couldn’t host the holiday in-person.

“I felt kind of, like, hopeless and cynical about it. … The whole point of passover is togetherness,” Cohn said. “The whole point is sitting around a table together.”

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Instead of giving up, Cohn got creative. She put together DIY Passover packages for her guests, which she dropped off at their homes while still abiding by the rules of social distancing. The packages included essential items — including matzo, flowers for their tables and tea lights — to celebrate the holiday.

Along with the special items she’s delivering ahead of the virtual Seder is a card, which Cohn said she hopes will convey to her guests what she believes is the true meaning of Passover.

“I hope that this will be grounded in tradition and comforting in that way, but also joyful and fun and funny, which is something we all really need right now,” Cohn said.