Passover is a celebratory affair, with friends and family gathering in homes, crowding around tables, feasting on food and good conversation. It’s by far the most-celebrated holiday of American Jewish life, with 70% saying they participate in seders each year.
At Passover, millions of Jews gather to remember their Hebrew forbears’ exodus from Egypt, where they escaped thanks to 10 divinely sent plagues. But the holiday, which begins Wednesday evening and lasts for 8 days, will look quite different this year.
Some of the parallels are hard to miss as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe.
Rabbi Elana Friedman, the chaplain of Jewish life at Duke University says “The plagues are a central part of the Seder experience. This year it feels like we have an 11th plague circling us.”
Social distancing and travel restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus prohibit large home gatherings. The cottage industry created by Passover travel has been decimated.
Pre-Passover gatherings at synagogues have been canceled. Multiple trips to the supermarket for horseradish and bitter herbs are out.
Most importantly, many Jews are lamenting the loss of one of Passover’s greatest pleasures — the gathering of family generations under the same roof, at the same table.
“The inability to spend Passover with their grandparents has been really difficult for a lot of students, and they are mourning the loss of that,” says Friedman. “At the same time, they realize the risks and that it’s not safe for us all to celebrate the holiday together.”
Many Jews are hosting virtual seders. Now, as young couples prepare to host their first seders, rabbis are sending encouragement and tips over text. some families who span generations — from bubbes to babies — will have to meet via technology or not at all. And some elderly Jews may spend Passover alone, their first without family in decades.
Jews from more liberal traditions have already prepared to host virtual seders on websites like OneTable, a nonprofit that connects Jews for communal gatherings on Shabbat and holy days.