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American seders go online on a Passover night different from all others

NEW YORK Esther Greenberg treasures keeping an eye on her children and grandkids pile up all around the Passover seder list and taste her matzoh party noodles.

“Seeing everybody who is me, everybody who is part of who I am,” she said in summing up the beauty of her annual seder table.

But this year is different. Greenberg will only get to watch her offspring on a computer screen through the digital platform Zoom. Like millions of other American Jews, Greenberg is hosting an online seder next week as her family maintains social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Passover is a week-long Jewish spring holiday to commemorate the biblical story of the exodus of Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It is marked by at least one seder that is typically led by a family matriarch or patriarch. Relatives and sometimes friends gather to retell the biblical story, join in Hebrew prayers and songs, and then enjoy a feast.

“At seder our team sing, and every time frame I say, ‘Let’s perform this piece,’ the faces are, ‘Oy, do we have to be compelled to?’ And before you think twice about it, they are all performing, they are all joyful. And then, it is time to devour,” said Greenberg, 73, choking back tears.

Greenberg, a retired office manager who lives with her husband, Bob, 75, a retired pharmacist, in the Long Island, New York, suburb of Woodbury, said her 10-year-old grandson had taught her how to use Zoom, and one sleepless night this week the idea of a “Zoom seder” popped into her head.

“And I find what you want even set the bench!” said Greenberg, whose freezer is packed with 60 matzoh balls, brisket, apple crisp with matzoh and other treats she started cooking weeks ago. She hopes her family will eat the food at a later date.

Passover seders are the most popular tradition for American Jews, with 70% of the 5.3 million Jewish Americans saying they joined one the previous year, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey.

Not all Jews will participate in streaming seders. Many Orthodox Jews, who closely follow the edicts of the Torah, will not use computers for a seder because it would break their normal ban on using electricity on Jewish holidays, even as they observe stay-at-home orders that prevent them from inviting extended family. Some Orthodox rabbis, however, have recently said that streaming will be allowed under certain circumstances.

In St. Louis, Marcia Moskowitz, 80, and her husband, Carl Moskowitz, 84, will also use Zoom to share the traditional fourth cup of wine in a seder with family members scattered from New York to Michigan.

“There is nothing like hugging the youth and grandbabies myself. But that is unacceptable this year,” said Marcia Moskowitz, a retired high school teacher and mother of two rabbis.

Her son Rabbi Michael Moskowitz of Temple Shir Shalom in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield Township, said his synagogue has already used YouTube and Facebook Live to bring services to worshippers during the pandemic. He said people are seeking community amid a crisis, and his online success so far convinced him to hold a Zoom seder with “appear spaces” for smaller groups like preschool parents who want to hold a children’s seder.

He said families should not worry or feel guilty if they do not have all of the symbolic items traditionally arranged on the seder plate – such as a roasted shankbone, which represents the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb before the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

“Health is first. We cannot go away our houses. So if you won’t have a shankbone, don’t be short of with the retail,” said Rabbi Moskowitz, adding that a drawing of a shankbone would suffice. “Telling the storyplot is the most important stage.”

In Austin, Texas, Rabbi Lev Baesh is hosting a Zoom seder through the community advocacy site WakingGiants.me. He said the biblical Passover story of fleeing Hebrews wandering in the wilderness is relevant and helpful for Americans facing uncertainties in the pandemic.

“It’s a solution of allowing us to alter to and know and past experience mountains, and found the matchmaking features that individuals ought to be competent to progress, regardless of the fact that we do not know where we will need,” Baesh said.

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey, has been offering online seders since 2009 as a way of including more worshippers at a time of declining synagogue membership across the United States, but Rabbi Daniel Cohen expects a flood of participants to join next week’s Zoom seder.

“Tenacity, evaluating what counts most and subsequently paying attention to which typically and performing to achieve it. That’s the story of Passover,” he said. “That’s also what kind of we’ve grown all residing immediately.”