Doreen Alper (center, in the matzah apron) sometimes has 60 or more people at her seders, such as this one in 2015. This year, she's facing the prospect of a much smaller gathering. (EDWARD LECHTZIN)
Doreen Alper (center, in the matzah apron) sometimes has 60 or more people at her seders, such as this one in 2015. This year, she's facing the prospect of a much smaller gathering. (EDWARD LECHTZIN)

How Bay Area Jews are planning to have meaningful seders with everyone stuck at home

A whopping 70 percent of American Jews attend a Passover seder every year, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. A little more than half go to services on Yom Kippur, and a little less than a quarter attend services at least once a month.

But it’s the seder that keeps us coming back.

It is a home-based tradition that connects us with family and traditional comfort foods — a discursive, circular ritual in which we retread the past by retelling the story of the Exodus and look toward the future by welcoming the Prophet Elijah, herald of the Messiah.

But this year’s Passover seders will be unlike any other.

We cannot fly home to our parents’ house. We cannot even walk down the block to a neighbor’s house.

Some of us look forward for months to hosting a large seder for friends and family, and are disappointed at the prospect of a small seder. Others will be forced to host a seder, for the family or friends we live with, for the first time.

Worst of all, some of us will be stuck alone at home, unable to celebrate the festival of freedom among community.

Of course, the story we tell at the seder every year is one of great hardship that gives way to joy and celebration. With the first night of Passover fast approaching on Wednesday, April 8, Jews around the Bay Area are hard at work figuring out how to overcome this year’s pandemic-induced hardship and create some measure of joy and celebration.

Going virtual

We have virtual services now, virtual Torah study, virtual b’nai mitzvahs — even virtual funerals. So why not a virtual seder? Indeed, that is what many people will opt for this year.

But services and classes can be frontal. There’s an easy logic to streaming them: Pick a platform (Zoom, Facebook Live, etc.), point a webcam at the person who is leading and stream away.

Seders are different, more participatory in spirit — and how exactly do you pass the matzah through a computer screen?

Several synagogues around the Bay Area are shifting planned congregational seders online, but there is some uncertainty about how that will work.

Rabbi Sarah Weissman of Congregation Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills with upwards of 1,500 member families, will be leading her congregation’s first-night seder from her home over Zoom.

Rabbi Sarah Weissman
Rabbi Sarah Weissman

“We just decided to do it,” she told J. on March 27, “so I haven’t fully fleshed it out yet. The thinking is that we want to offer something that is live and could enable people to connect with other people in a seder-like setting.”

Weissman will be with her family at their dinner table, all set up for the seder. And somewhere on that table will be a computer monitor and webcam streaming her family’s seder to Beth Am members who are at home with their families, or on their own.

“We’ll probably abbreviate it so that we’re not all sitting slurping our soup over the computer,” she said. “But it really depends how many RSVP, how interactive it will be and what the format will be. Either way, we’ll have a seder. We’ll eat. We’ll sing. If it’s small enough, we’ll have an interactive discussion.”

Joe Gindi, 39, a Jewish nonprofit professional, moved with his partner to Oakland from Brooklyn at the beginning of March. They thought maybe they’d fly back East to spend the seder with friends, or maybe they’d find one here. But they were barely able to get their feet on the ground before the outbreak of coronavirus.

“As it became clear we weren’t going to be able to go to seders, we felt like we wanted to host one virtually,” Gindi said.

Joe Gindi
Joe Gindi

“It’s actually an opportunity to have people on the East and West Coasts, from both of our families and friends, all come together for a seder, which wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

Gindi has a leg up when it comes to figuring out how to do a virtual seder. “One of the things I do professionally is run webinars, so I feel very comfortable in that mode,” he said.

He’ll probably keep it short — it’s hard for people to stay focused on a Zoom gathering for more than an hour, he says. “So I imagine we’ll do more of the first part of the seder and log off or let people trail off for dinner and the post-dinner parts. We’ll create a set of prompts for sharing and connecting, either in turns or in small groups through breakout rooms — depends how many people come.”

‘Forget all the narishkeit

For more traditionally observant Jews, the first two days of Passover, including the two seder nights, involve following Shabbat-like rules: no electricity, no driving, no handling money, no writing, etc. (though cooking is allowed).

In other words, Orthodox Jews won’t be streaming their seders — except for those who follow Israeli Sephardic rabbis, who, in an extraordinary measure, announced they are allowing streamed seders under certain conditions this year.

For the first time, the Rabbinical Assembly, rabbis who represent Judaism’s Conservative movement, has issued guidance that makes virtual seders possible this year. Essentially, they allow it, although there are some caveats — for example, it can only be streamed, not recorded, and participants are encouraged to avoid typing into a streaming platform’s text chat feature and to interact only via speaking.

One local Conservative rabbi is encouraging extreme leniency about every aspect of Passover this year, from video streaming to upholding the holiday’s complex dietary restrictions.

Rabbi Dan Ain
Rabbi Dan Ain

Rabbi Dan Ain of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco enthusiastically supports the RA’s ruling on virtual seders. “It’s a must,” he said. “It’s very important to connect with people during seder. We are trying to figure out if we’ll do one for our shul. Do people want to have a rabbi and some other people on a screen during their seder meal? If they’re all alone, I think some of them really do.”

He also is encouraging people to take it easy with other aspects of the holiday. “Forget all the narishkeit [foolish minutiae] this year,” Ain implored.

“Use common sense. Don’t eat bread. Just don’t eat bread. All of this other narishkeit, all the way down to the most minute thing — you don’t need a $30 bag of cookies certified kosher for Passover by the OU [Orthodox Union]. Just avoid leavened food and reconnect with the ikar [essence] of what the holiday is all about.”

A ‘small’ seder

Doreen Alper hosted 70 people at her seders last year. By her extraordinary standards, she was already planning to have “small” seders this year — just 44 people over the course of two nights.

Now, of course, she’s been forced to scale back further, to 11 — her husband, son, daughter-in-law, their five kids and two additional grandchildren home from college.

Alper, 81, started cooking for Passover in February. In her freezer, she has 15 quarts of chicken soup and 80 matzah balls. she said.

“I have two briskets, 6 pounds of chicken wings. I’ve got gefilte fish. I’ve done all the shopping.”

The thought of canceling hasn’t crossed Alper’s mind.

“It’s difficult in my mind. As much difficulty as we are having with this virus, I just believe what family I can have, we need to have together for Pesach,” she said.

Doreen Alper's family's haggadah features photos of generations of the family. (DOREEN ALPER)
Doreen Alper’s family’s haggadah features photos of generations of the family. (DOREEN ALPER)

Passover is the highlight of Alper’s year. She’s been hosting large seders since 1992, when 50 or so people came to her home outside Cleveland. “We do Yom Kippur, we do Rosh Hashanah, I do all the cooking — but that’s only for family here in the Bay Area,” Alper said. “But Pesach, family comes from all over. No one comes for vacation, they just come for seders. And everybody has canceled.”

The importance of the seder in her family is present in every detail; they even have a special family haggadah full of family photos going back generations.

She’s taking some mild precautions this year, a grudging concession to coronavirus. “We’ll wash our hands, we’ll sit down, it’ll be all new. We do the whole service, but this year we’ll do a fast seder. That’s the best we can do,” she said. “Maybe we’ll just have one seder. But we’re going to have seder. I can’t even imagine not being together for the first seder.”

All alone

Alper’s nightmare — Passover spent alone — is some people’s reality this year.

While some who live alone will be able to join a virtual seder, there are many for whom that is a halachic impossibility.

There are a few resources out there for people facing that situation. A guide called “A Different Pesach: Ideas for the Solo Seder” is circulating in the form of a Google Doc. Including practical and creative suggestions, the document was created collaboratively by a group of 10, mostly on the East Coast, including Rabbi Louis Polisson of Conservative Congregation Or Atid in Wayland, Massachusetts, and Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, founder of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, an Orthodox spiritual community and learning center located in a former scooter shop.

“Pesach will be uniquely challenging for everyone this year,” the guide says. “One very important thing to remember is that each of us will deal with Pesach in a very different way this year. Please bear in mind that your seder might look a lot of different ways — from extremely bare-bones and low-key, to more elaborate — and that all of those ways are okay … The right Seder for you this year might involve matzah and cream cheese, a good book, and sleep. That might be all you’re up for, and that is totally okay.”

One section of the guide is devoted to ideas for creating a sense of community and companionship in the run-up to the seder: cooking “together” with a loved one during a video call; cooking the same recipe as a friend or loved one, though not necessarily on a video call; having a video call right before the seder “to send everyone into Pesach with one another’s voices in their ears.”

Another section has suggestions for managing the solo seder itself: “pace yourself” … “make yourself something yummy, but be kind to yourself — no need to make it fancy” … and find “a book on the theme of ‘yetziat mitzrayim’ [the Exodus from Egypt] to keep you company” over dinner.

Local Chabad and Modern Orthodox rabbis are fielding a lot of questions about how to do a seder on your own.

Rabbi Nosson Potash of Chabad of Cole Valley in San Francisco makes it sound simple. “It will be, in many ways, the same as any other seder. Everyone will have a seder plate at home — try the best they can to get all the seder plate items. And they’ll read the haggadah,” he said.

“It doesn’t need to be four hours long. As each of us gets into the seder on our own, there’s plenty to explore and the text of the haggadah will enable people to experience this story of the Jewish people going from a state of oppression and narrowness to true freedom … The Passover story is relevant no matter who is around.”

Potash has been trying to impress on people in his community that a solo seder is totally within their grasp. “It’s in their hands to celebrate the festival of our freedom. Even if it’s on our own, we can become free,” he said.

Every year, the haggadah tells seder participants that they must see it as if they themselves went forth from Egypt. According to Potash, this year’s unusual circumstances may help engender that feeling.

“When the Jewish people left Egypt, the night of the Exodus, the night of the first Passover, they were all instructed to stay at home — alone or with their family,” he says.

“We can see how this being stuck at home is part of our journey into freedom, just like the first time the Jewish people became free from Egypt. We’ve done this before.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is on the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].