For thousands of years, Passover has been celebrated as one of the most important events in the Jewish calendar. The traditional meal is typically eaten with friends and family together. However, in a time of isolation and social distancing in New York, this sacred celebration has been adapted virtually via video conferencing. What began as problem that threatened to cancel the event has led to a solution that has brought together people from all over New York, the US, and even as far away as Australia.

Postcards Passover 2020

Participants in the online Passover Seder. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong

It was just four years ago that I experienced my first Passover Seder with a group of 10 friends from church. This Jewish, ceremonial dinner follows a very specific order of readings, symbolic actions and the eating of foods that represent key elements of the exodus from Egypt. 

"The solution came by using video conferencing app Zoom...Now a virtual table featuring dozens of faces could be accessed on the computer screen. Each participant, in their own homes, prepared their own individual Seder plate."

Every meal features a Seder plate with Matzah (unleavened bread), an egg, bitter herbs (usually a strong horseradish representing the pain of enslavement), a sweet paste and wine that is all consumed symbolically. The whole experience was a revelation that shed a new light on many aspects of the Christian faith. Many of us marvelled at how a ritual that has endured for millennia points so clearly to the Gospel.

Since that experience, we have hosted a Seder every year, and numbers grew from the initial 10 to 20, which is the maximum that could fit around a table in the limited space of New York City. This year, plans for Passover were thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 restrictions and there was the very real possibility of a complete cancellation. For it is one thing to hold a church service or a Bible study digitally, but how does an online dinner work with responsive readings, communal singing and the simultaneous eating of symbolic elements? 

Easter Passover 2020

Prepared elements for the meal. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

The solution came by using video conferencing app Zoom. Now a virtual table featuring dozens of faces could be accessed on the computer screen. Each participant, in their own homes, prepared their own individual Seder plate. With groceries in limited supply, creativity was required to find some substitutes. In some cases the Matzah was replaced with rice cakes or Goldfish crackers. The traditional horseradish of the bitter herbs found alternatives with hot sauces and mustards. Those without a boiled egg used nuts or seeds and the sweet paste of honey and fruits ranged from pineapples to peaches and everything in between. What seemed to be a logistical nightmare became a celebration of resourcefulness and ingenuity as participants proudly showed their creative solutions in the making of each Seder plate.

The leaders of the Seder ritual, Mark and Rachel Friedlander, adapted the traditional Haggadah (order of service) into a version that would work in this online setting. Highlights included the raucous communal singing of the Dayenu Passover song which pushed the Zoom platform to the limits as scores of voices simultaneously sang and clapped in celebration. Moments like the lighting of the candle, the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine took on a special dynamic as you could see dozens of screens joining in at the same time. In fact, there were more than 60 people participating in this online Seder, more than three times the number we have ever hosted live. 

Postcards NYC Passover2

Participants in the online meal. PICTURE: Marcus Cheong.

This was all a clear demonstration of our need for community and a desire for shared experiences in this time of isolation. It is apt that the Seder forms the basis of the Christian Communion, which, as the name implies, is an act that is meant to be done together - in common. 

The power of the digital age is that our communion with each other is no longer defined by geography. Members of our New York community have scattered far and wide due the upheaval of the pandemic. The Seder this week brought people together not only from all over New York but also from Michigan, California, Hawaii and Australia. It is a testament that, although there are powers that are forcing people to be physically apart, there is an even greater spirit that binds us together.