It’s almost Passover, everybody! The most wonderful time of the year — meditating on the nature of leadership and freedom, overdoing it on the Kedem wine while cross-talking your aunts and uncles, and rituals of springtime and renewal.
This year, for the holiday, Earth got us a pandemic! Which, honestly, is a pretty terrible present. And also a little too biblically on-the-nose.
Part of what this means is that in a time of fear and uncertainty, sadly, we will not be able to be together for Passover in the ways we normally would. But, because this is a festival about resilience and justice-loving action in the face of hardship, we’re going to make it through together. One lovely way to do that is to organize a virtual seder!
This guide is geared towards folks who are going to be using some kind of technology through the holiday, though I’m also including some tips and guidelines that may be useful for those who won’t. (For no-tech options, you can also check out this lovely guide for solo and small seders, a collaborative document pulled together by Dasi and Temim Fruchter of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel community.)
A little background on me: I grew up in a Reconstructionist community in Pittsburgh, and I’m coming to this not as a rabbincally trained leader, but as a digital organizer and campaigner who has spent the past 14 years learning and testing creative ways for people to come together meaningfully from wherever they are. As the Elections Director of Democracy for America, I advised candidates and campaign staff all around the country, from rural areas to city centers, working with folks in all 50 states. As national campaigner for MoveOn, I built programs recruiting, training, and supporting a multigenerational crew of thousands of volunteer leaders on issues like health care access and economic justice — primarily using webinars, chat tools, Google docs, and Zoom and Maestro Conference, hosting virtual house parties and livestreams.
Throughout, I’ve been amazed at how these tools can enable incredibly moving, vulnerable moments of connection, community, and collaborative storytelling, even when folks are physically far away.
That’s what we’re going for here, in this surreal, Octavia-Butler-feeling, sci-fi-alternative-timeline that is Passover 5780.
Preparing for your Seder
Convince Your Family to Stay Home
Depending on where we are, this decision may be made for a lot of us, with travel shutting down and shelter-in-place orders moving across the nation. But just in case, it’s worth confirming and reiterating here, regardless of where you are, that at this stage, you cannot responsibly or safely plan to have in-person seders on April 8-16 with anyone except those already in your immediate families and households and close circles of physical contact.
This hurts, no doubt. It is a sacred and joyful reunion time for so many of us. But the CDC, the WHO, and municipal leaders have all been clear — it’s on all of us to break the chain of transmission. Larger gatherings of folks are potentially devastating vectors for the virus, and based on epidemiological spreads in Italy and China, we are still likely to be in the midst of serious upheaval on Wednesday, April 8, the first night.
So, check in with your people, and if need be, clarify why we all have to stay home, maintain physical distance, and get your loved ones to prepare for the same.
Getting Your Tech Right
Let’s start with technology! You want something that ideally has interactive features, video, and screensharing. FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and Zoom are all cool options that can be done from a computer, tablet, or phone. For the purposes of this overview, though, I’m recommending Zoom — setting up an account is free, there a bunch of useful trainings/how-tos online, and it has a ton of awesome features like meeting scheduling, screen sharing, breakouts, and chats that you can use to make your virtual seder that much more fun and interactive.
You can schedule your seder “meeting” in advance and it will send email reminders to everyone who RSVPs. (If you get the free version, you’ll need to restart your meeting 40 minutes in with the same link; if you spring for a $14.99 monthly trial, or if someone has access to an upgraded account through work or school, then your virtual meeting can go indefinitely.)
The priority is finding a relatively simple tool that allows you to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. If your family/community has already started doing some version of this during the quarantine, using something that people are already comfortable with is often best!
Once you’re settled on the tool, I recommend two things: a round of one-one-one calls to your people, to help folks download it in advance, and secondly, a short trial run with as many in the group as you can wrangle in the coming weeks before the holiday begins, so that day-of, your virtual seder is as smooth as possible, and you can focus your time more on connection and less on making sure people know how to use the mute button/turn their camera on/remember the order of the grandkids names they used for the password.
Recruit Your People
Build your list, and send an email or group text as soon as you can recruiting folks to join you. Cast a wide net — the mental health impacts of social isolation are very real. Consider in particular all of our elders and folks living alone. I made you a sample email; feel free to crib and make your own!
If you’re connecting with folks who are spread across time zones, just be cognizant when scheduling — 7 p.m. EST/ 6 p.m. CST/ 5 p.m. MST/ 4 p.m. PST is a good default time where West Coast folks can join even if it’s a bit later than usual for the East Coast.
“Seder as salon”
My friend — writer, artist, and organizer Temim Fruchter — invented this, and it’s brilliant and simple. Ask every participant to bring some art or poem or reading or reflection they’d like to share, and then have folks perform or do it during the seder itself.
As Temim also wisely said recently, “Now is the time for a spiritual potluck.”
Part of the joy of seder is cooking together, tasting the same haroset and raving about the same kugel — but Miss Rona (as I like to call her) has thrown a wrench in all that. Here are a couple ideas for creating a shared dinner experience, at varying scales for budget and interactive safety.
Make a family cookbook
You can gather recipes and compile them into a shared Google doc that everyone can use, making a virtual “potluck” where people “bring” certain items to the feast.
This can also be a great analog project: One person can take responsibility for gathering recipes from everyone, set a deadline, and then make a little recipe zine for everyone to be mailed in time to use.
Have a “potluck” by mail
Here’s where folks can actually “bring” a certain item to the potluck by mailing them to everyone — for example, a certain kind of wine or macaroons. (I’m neither a chef nor an epidemiologist nor a kosher expert, but unless you are a combo of these things, please do not be out here shipping anybody brisket, it’s gonna go wrong.)
Buddy up into pairs or small groups for cooking 1:1
(Or household to household!)
You can actually prepare meals together over video. This is nice because you can rotate your cooking buddies and get some quality time in with a bunch of people. You can use the same Zoom account you’ll use for your big event.
Take an online cooking consultation together
In the days/weeks before Passover. There are a ton of great options out there — I recommend Ariel Neaderthal Voorhees’ GatherRound. She’s a delight, she’s focused on family bonding through food, and she’ll also do individualized consultations for Passover specific prep.
Brainstorm Together & Delegate Roles
As with any community gathering, everyone having a role to play makes the event more engaging, unleashes everyone’s creativity and expertise, and distributes the work it’ll take to make it feel like the boisterous, collaborative effort seders typically are. I suggest a prep call together for some folks some time in the next week to get started.
The beauty of this is that it can also double as the aforementioned tech run-through, and help folks get comfortable with whatever digital tool you’re using!
Here are some good projects/roles people (or groups of people!) can take on:
1. Make a Collaborative Haggadah
This person or team of people decide which haggadah to use, or coordinates the assembly of one from various sources into one Google doc that is shared with everyone. You can invite all of your participants to give input, or ask them to bring something for a certain section (i.e. “Can you find the best reflections on the seder plate? Can you find something about the four questions?” etc). This team also takes the lead on figuring out how to get it to everyone — i.e. screenshare this document during your seder and/or folks who are able can print it out for themselves at home. (Slightly more ambitious, but beautifully tactile option? Print it yourself as a little family zine, like the cookbook, and mail to everyone in time to arrive before April 8!)
2. Hide the Afikomen
This person leads on figuring out a game, quiz, or competition the kids can do (balance a book on their head while dancing! Solve a series of riddles!) and a prize that can be delivered from anywhere (mail them a puzzle! Send them a link to a virtual dance video! etc.).
3. Virtual Host Zoom Leader
This person takes responsibility for setting up the Zoom and running the tech pieces during the call, adding others as “hosts” if need be, and handles the screensharing or slidedecks. Crucial.
4. Food Coordinator
This person can take the lead on food-related projects, sharing recipes, organizing a cooking buddy system, etc.
5. Music Director
Make a themed Spotify playlist. Lead songs and play an instrument during the call. Play intros and outros as people join and leave. So many options!
6. Elijah’s Cup
This is a time of mutual aid — leaving the door open, and a cup filled, is a ritual of solidarity and community care. It’s also an act that current events have restored to its original boldness. Someone here can take the lead on gathering options for your family to volunteer for, fund, or otherwise support local mutual aid efforts and liberation-focused organizing.
During Your Seder
If you are the lead host in a virtual seder, here are few ways to adapt the typical agenda flow of the ceremony and storytelling.
Facilitate grounding exercises at the beginning, and look for places to weave them in throughout — something to bring people into their bodies a bit, even though it’s easy to feel like we are floating heads on screens. This can be a breathing exercise, or a short meditation, or a physical act we all do — “Put our hand on our hearts, close our eyes, and imagine we are in the same room. Now hug yourselves, and open your eyes and send that hug around.”
Do a go-around early-on to make sure everyone understands how the shared readings will work, to keep things flowing and so it’s not a struggle to figure out which person will go next when moving through the haggadah. One way to do this is to “pull up a chair” using a visual slide, where people drag and drop their “chair” to the table. Here’s an example — you, as the facilitator, have them drag their chairs (a digital sticky note) around the table. Then, ask everyone to go around say what they’re bringing to the table today — something literal, like a food item, the seder plate, and maybe something else about how they’re feeling in this moment. (Alternatively, you can also just put the names in order in the “chat” function, or call on people by name until they remember the order.)
Screenshare the haggadah you are using, and the Zoom Leader moves people through it by scrolling. (Don’t forget to delete or move any awkward folders/tabs on your desktop before you share! Once I had a prof doing her first online class and there was a huge “DIVORCE” file on the upper right. It bummed people out.)
Depending on the size of your group, I also love using the “breakouts” tool in Zoom to move people into groups of two or three for individual conversations. These can be lightly facilitated, if you want (i.e. “Share how you’re feeling about these past few weeks,” or, “What part of this story is resonating with you this year?”) and then merge everyone back into the big group all together.
You can also consider moving your camera/device around and creating a moment where people go as outside as they are able — their porch or balcony, or just near an open window — to connect to nature for a moment and look at the shared sky.
Some of these might feel a little silly at first, but be brave and lean into it. It’s often the things that feel a little silly that help people feel the most present.
Locating Ourselves in the Story
Every year as we go through the seder, we are meant to relive the ancient Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, and we are encouraged to think about how the story relates to modern times and our own lives. Well, the events of the past few months have felt not unlike an ever-escalating series of plagues, and like Moses, we are all getting a sacred call to work towards libeartion, whether we feel ready or not..
The part I love most about the Passover story is how unprepared Moses believes he is — that there’s someone else God must be looking for. But there isn’t — it’s him, and it’s us, flaws and all. As I talk to friends, family, and loved ones these past few days, it’s clear that so many of us are feeling a deep sense of anxious unreadiness and fear. And yet, it is helpful to remember that this feeling is not new for so many of us — Jewish and Black and queer and immigrant and trans and disabled and Muslim and indigenous folks have been organizing and finding ways to take care of each other through near-apocalyptic conditions for a long time.
This story is about Jewish connection to all struggles against injustice, and this moment is about how inextricable we are from one another — how our sorrows and our freedom are and have always been deeply collective. We can use this time to make rituals that honor and, no matter where we are, connect us to the people we love.
Want More Guidance?
We’ve put together a Google doc with resources for hosting a virtual seder. This is a living, collaborative document that will continue to be updated, and to which you can add your own helpful links!
Header Image by Grace Yagel.