Passover, the celebration of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, normally begins with great family dinners, the seder. But this year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging and stay-at-home orders in place, many Jewish families are turning to virtual seders.
The Edward A. Myerberg Center in Northwest Baltimore put on its own virtual seder earlier this week.
It started with Melanie Waxman, who teaches the ins and outs of computer technology to older adults at the center, as the host on Zoom, a free video conferencing application.
“I’m holding on to my matzoh,” she told her virtual guests. “And we are going to get started with this shindig.”
The shindig starts with the first of four glasses of wine and a prayer.
“Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech haolam, borei pri hagafen,” which roughly translates to blessed is the maker of the fruit of the vine.
And of course, the matzoh, which represents the unleavened bread the Israelites took with them as they fled Egypt. They left so quickly the dough hadn’t had time to rise.
“This is the poor man’s bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” she and her online audience intoned. “All who are hungry, come and eat, all who are in distress, come share Passover with us!”
Jennifer Osterweil, the assistant director for programs at the center, says they’ve done an intergenerational seder for the past couple of years, partnered with the Krieger-Schechter Day School in Baltimore County.
“If this was not a pandemic right now, we would have been at the Myerberg with a lot more people, with about 60 adults and 40 kids,” she said. “And we’d have a nice, catered lunch.”
She said they had 25 for the virtual seder Monday. They do it during the day, rather than the evening, the traditional time, because that’s when the kids can be there, she explained.
Monday, the kids were Ellie Glazer and Noa Nusinov, Krieger Schechter students who sang the four questions; How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat leavened foods and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah? On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, bitter herbs?
Osterweil says they came up with the idea for the virtual seder in the last two weeks. They were trying to be creative.
“We’re doing staff meetings via Zoom, why can’t we do the seder,” she recounted. “And then we got in contact with Krieger-Schechter and they said sure, the kids can still come on and sing the prayers.”
But they had to limit it to just two kids, Ellie and Noa, because having everyone talking over each other on Zoom would have been overwhelming.
Waxman added Miriam’s Cup to her seder table. It’s a relatively new ritual that serves as the symbol of Miriam’s Well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert, and as a symbol of inclusion for women.
Osterweil says that was Waxman’s idea for this seder, but it won’t be at everyone’s table.
And then Waxman added a ditty sung to the tune of Clementine (honest) for the kids, a reference to the Torah’s description of four types of children, wise, evil, simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask.
Said the father to his children, "At the seder you will dine,
You will eat your fill of matzoh, you will drink four cups of wine."
Now this father had no daughters, but his sons they numbered four.
One was wise and one was wicked, one was simple and a bore.
And it goes on.
They recited the ten plagues God brought on the Egyptians to force them to let the Israelites go, sang “Dayenu,” meaning it would have been enough, and then came to Elijah’s cup, a glass of wine set aside for the prophet who precedes the Messiah.
“We traditionally open the door to our home to allow Elijah to enter and sing the song,” Waxman said. “Today, we are not opening the door. We’re not letting anybody enter. But that’s not the hope for our next seder, for our future.”
Maybe not next year in Jerusalem, as they traditionally say at the end of the seder, but next year at the Myerberg, Waxman said. Or at least next year in person