Hillel Offers Virtual Seder Advice
Every spring, Jewish people around the world celebrate Passover with their extended family; gathering for a communal meal and ritual known as the Seder that retells the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. This year, in the wake of a global pandemic, Jews are rethinking the way they celebrate Passover. How does one prepare for Passover in the age of social distancing and Covid-19?
In order to help students and families looking for ideas, we asked Rabbi Benjamin Berger, Vice President for Jewish Education at Hillel International, for his insights.
Q: Given the global crisis, extended families coming together to celebrate isn’t possible or advisable. So how are you and other families thinking about observing Passover this year?
A: The ethos of the Passover experience is about inviting people in. Going back to the very first Passovers in the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, it has always been a holiday of gathering. It’s one of the three times of the year that Jewish people, especially family and friends, gather to share meals and we open our doors to invite the hungry, the needy, to come join us. The current situation certainly upends the central theme of the holiday, but right now we need to accept that we just can’t do that right now, it’s just not safe for us to gather.
I am proud to say that the rabbinic advice from Jewish leaders around the world has been this: We know how badly you want to be with all your family right now, but it’s not the safe thing to do. Rather, the Jewish ethic of choosing life over all other things should be at the forefront. It doesn’t mean that we are giving up on Passover, there are still many ways of celebrating the ritual and the joyousness of it, without compromising the health and welfare of our loved ones. Even in the most traditional Jewish homes in our society, I know people are thinking of creative ways to come together, to celebrate the taste of freedom, which is what the festival is all about. I think most importantly we are thinking about people’s mental health, as being physically separated during this holiday period can be so risky for people’s mental wellbeing. So, we are thinking of ways to mitigate that by finding ways to connect with one another – one of which is to celebrate through one-on-one video sessions, or virtual Seders. We are trying to lessen the sense of loneliness and isolation, the point being that we do have to be distant, but it doesn’t mean we have to be alone. I think that’s the message we should focus on spreading right now.
Q: People are grieving what’s happening in the world right now and grieving a tradition that feels changed or can’t be fulfilled in the way that is traditionally meaningful to them. What is something you’d say to them to lessen their sense of grief and still honor the celebration?
A: What all of us can do right now is do our best. We need to recognize that, yes, these are not ideal circumstances, but this is also not the first hard Passover. Over the course of our history, hundreds and thousands of people have observed Passover in some very difficult moments. I think remembering that reminds us that our number one trait as humans is our resilience. We are a model of resilient human beings who have found structures, like the Seder, to live through the worst, and we’ve come out on the other end as stronger people for it. I am confident that we in this world will get through this, no matter how difficult the situation is right now, and we will need to rely upon our sources of wisdom, inspiration, and strength to do so.
Q: What is the wisdom within the tradition and the story of Passover that the world can learn and draw strength from right now?
A: Firstly, our notion of resilience. I think storytelling is one of the things that keeps people connected to one another, and especially now, as we are feeling afraid of what’s to come, I think we’ve to double down on the stories that offer us hope. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to dig back into the story of the Jewish people, for it reminds us of how resilient we are: that we have had hard times before and we will have them again, yet we are people who can celebrate, can live, who do live, choose life, and live deeply with a great sense of joy and gratitude. The second reminder is that we are not alone. Even if we are separated by distance, talking through our computers, we will still find ways to connect. We deeply believe that there’s God and though we may not understand what is happening right now, God is there, and we are not alone, and we need to call upon that source of strength whenever we can.
Q: Thank you, that’s truly inspirational. It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we are also thinking a lot about our students. We’d love to get an understanding of what you’re hearing from Hillel communities across campuses, and how are students preparing for this holiday period?
A: There are different kinds of students right now and we are trying to find ways to help all of them. Some students are stuck in their dorms because they couldn’t travel home, some are home or in places where they’d want to be in these circumstances, and then there are those who are home but may not have a Jewish support system for a lot of reasons. We understand that this is complicated, but we are trying to find ways to help all of them celebrate this holiday by offering them virtual resources.
Some campuses are setting up Zoom-based Seders for students to plug into. There are local rabbis and executive directors of campuses that are filming their family Seders and inviting students to virtually join in. There are organizations like One Table, who are hosting Passover 2020 by offering students options and guides to host solo Passovers, or plug into various virtual spaces to celebrate with others. At Hillel International, we are offering resources like how to organize your own virtual Seder, how to join Zoom sessions, or celebrate with others virtually. We are trying to offer our support in creative ways to find an alternative to a very traditional holiday moment. I think that’s what we can all do right now.