Last year, Hillel Milwaukee — along with Jews everywhere — had approximately three weeks to figure out how to safely celebrate Passover amid a global pandemic. Like many Jewish communities and families, it hosted a virtual seder, with students tuning in on computers and following along with digital Haggadahs.
The Hillel Milwaukee seder will be online again in 2021, as many seders will likely be. But this year, there’s more time to prepare — and an entire year’s worth of lessons to draw from about how to create meaning while maintaining a physical distance.
“This year it can be a little bit more strategic,” said Hillel Milwaukee Executive Director Deb Carneol Fendrich.
As we gear up for a second pandemic-era Passover, here’s what we can learn from how Hillel Milwaukee and other local organizations and individuals celebrated last year.
Passover meals to-go
When Ruth Lebed of Fox Point realized that it wouldn’t be safe to host last year’s seder in person, she sprung into gear, organizing a food exchange amongst her 20+ guests.
Lebed cooked the soup, brisket and other entrees, while guests delivered side dishes and desserts to her house. Then she repackaged all of the food into individual containers for each guest to pick up before their virtual seder. Lebed, who’s a member of Congregation Sinai in Fox Point, plans to do something similar this year.
“It’s really fun to be eating the same food,” she said.
Although Hillel Milwaukee didn’t provide food in 2020, this year it’s offering free kosher-for-Passover meals and mini seder plates that students can pre-order and pick up to use during the online seder.
“For me, it’s about being able to have a tangible along with the virtual,” Fendrich said.
Virtual Passover cooking classes — either through a local Jewish organization or more casually with a family member — can be another way to embrace Passover food traditions. Last year, Hillel Milwaukee offered a cooking class via Zoom, a popular video conferencing software. Through a screen, Hillel’s Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow Shaked Ram taught a group of students how to make matzah rolls stuffed with potato and tomato.
This year, the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center is hosting a Passover cooking class as part of its Taste & Traditions: Winter Cooking Series. Participants pick up an ingredient curbside at the JCC and then follow along on Zoom as a chef from the North Shore Boulangerie teaches them how to make a Passover-inspired dessert.
Families can share recipes virtually, too. Last year, Lebed used Zoom to teach her son and daughter-in-law how to make her brisket since the couple lives in Providence, Rhode Island —too far away to drop off her homemade Passover meals.
Virtual seder festivities
In addition to the meals that Lebed had her guests pick up before last year’s seder, she also gave out copies of her Haggadah and Passover-themed masks. At one point during the seder, all of the guests put on the masks and “punked” Lebed’s son, Lex Rofeberg, who was leading the seder and hadn’t known about the masks.
This year, Lebed said she wants to introduce additional lighthearted antics to keep guests engaged — especially now that people are more comfortable with Zoom. For instance, she said each guest could choose to display a different virtual background, which is a feature that the software supports.
Rabbi Shari Shamah, the JCC’s Community Services and Program Director, also recommends incorporating jokes and Passover-themed versions of games like Mad Libs into the Seder or prompting guests to take turns sharing a favorite Passover memory.
“That’s a way to make it feel a little more connected and a little more personal,” Shamah said.
To help facilitate conversations among guests, Lebed recommends leveraging technology. For instance, some platforms allow for “break-out rooms” where participants can video conference in smaller groups before rejoining the main call.
It may take time to become comfortable using video conferencing software. Like many people, last year’s seder was Roger Carp’s first time using Zoom. But as a fifth-grade religious school teacher at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point, he became more comfortable with the platform as he taught remote classes throughout 2020.
This year, Carp said he’s excited to apply what he’s learned — such as sharing his screen to play short videos — to the virtual seder that he plans to lead again this year.
“I think that’s one of the goals of any seder — you want to keep the very best while finding more and innovative ways to present it and challenge people to think more deeply about the seder,” he said.
Intimate seders at home
Virtual seders aren’t a solution for those who are shomer Shabbos, or observant of the Jewish laws that restrict the use of technology and other activities on Shabbat and other major holidays — including the first two and last two nights of Passover.
This is the case for Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Accustomed to hosting a large Passover gathering, Altman-Shafer said it was “hard on an emotional level” to imagine celebrating without her guests.
However, Altman-Shafer shared an intimate seder at home with her husband and two sons and said she was “shocked by how beautiful and meaningful” it was. They incorporated more Hebrew than usual and had time for deeper discussions.
“Usually when we have a seder, we’re so busy being hosts and hostesses, rushing around,” Altman-Shafer said. “When it was just the four of us, we could really focus on just the seder.”
For many Orthodox Jews who normally gather with extended family or travel during Passover, last year was the first time they hosted a seder in their own home, said Carrie Barbakoff, administrative coordinator at Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Glendale. For some, it was also the first time they had to “turn over” their homes to remove all traces of chametz, or leavened foods.
This year, Barbakoff predicts that while there may still be less travel and fewer gatherings, some families might come together if they’ve been vaccinated, or choose to quarantine or get tested before attending an in-person seder.
“I think the stress is still there for Passover, but less so probably this year,” Barbakoff said. “People have an idea of what to expect.”
No matter what the Passover celebration might look like this year, Shamah said that reflecting on the meaning of the holiday — which is about telling the story of the Jewish peoples’ journey to freedom — is a way to maintain hope.
“This whole COVID pandemic is still a journey,” Shamah said, adding: “We’re a strong and resilient people. When we’re together as a community—even if we’re in our own homes—when we rely on each other, we’re stronger on the other side.”