Apart, But Still Together: Planning a Virtual Seder

How to Stay Connected Through a Socially-Distanced Passover

DIY watercolor seder plate

Rebekah Lowin 

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. It’s the most marvelous, exquisite blend of all of the things I love about Judaism: family, tradition, ancient questions and stories, and delicious food. More than anything, I love that it ushers in this profound sense of interconnectedness—the feeling that the words we’re reading are reverberating well beyond the walls of our dining rooms; that there’s a real magic to our shared script; and that what we’re feeling is also being felt by thousands of other Jewish families all over the world at the same time.

When I was little, sitting at the Seder table, I’d try to mentally illustrate that concept: I would imagine the prophet Elijah toddling through my neighborhood, visiting doorstep after doorstep and sipping from cup after cup—the silent (and presumably rather tipsy) visitor connecting us all. It’s that unmistakable, unshakable, drunk-Elijah thing that always manages to persist, no matter the circumstances, no matter the bad or good news, no matter if we’re sitting across from each other at the same table or beaming at one another through a screen.

We all know that Passover is going to look different when it comes around this Wednesday—and that it has to. To resist this very necessary change would be irresponsible. Instead, most of us have begrudgingly changed plans, canceled flights, and set about planning virtual Seders.

But a virtual Seder doesn’t have to be merely “tolerable” or “do-able.” Just because they weren’t our first choice doesn’t mean that this year’s plans can’t be as lively, vibrant, and meaningful as the ones of years past. In fact—with the deliberate accommodations we’ll have to make for the distance between us—it’s very possible that your 2020 Seder could end up being even more enriching, even more interesting and special than any other in recent memory. Instead of diminishing the beauty of the holiday, these challenges might accentuate it, reminding us that the most beautiful, special things are worth fighting for.

Here are a few tips on making the most of your virtual gathering.

virtual passover tablescape
Rebekah Lowin

Shift Your Mindset

In Judaism, the preservation of human life is more important, more crucial, and more powerful than any other mitzvot or commandment. This concept of pikuach nefesh literally translates to “saving a life,” and its message couldn’t be clearer: to save one life is to save the whole world.

Seders this year are going to be virtual; whether or not you participate is the only thing up for debate. We’re all doing our part to keep our friends, relatives, and neighbors safe, and eschewing our normal Passover plans is simply part of that necessary effort. But—as pikuach nefesh reminds us—that doesn’t have to be such a downer.

It’s natural to feel disappointed, sad, or even heartbroken at the prospect of not being able to gather with your family this year. Obviously, these circumstances aren’t ideal and you can’t be expected to rejoice at the idea of staring at your parents or grandparents through a screen on April 8. But what you can do is shift your focus from the things you’ll be losing to the things you’re gaining. For this one year, try your best to think generatively, additively, and positively about the situation. If not for you, do it for your family members and friends who might also be sad about the idea of messing with the tried-and-true traditions of their favorite holidays.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • What might be even better about this year’s Seder? (Maybe: The chance to celebrate with your entire family, even the relatives who live out-of-state and don’t normally join for Seder.)
  • What might be even more memorable about this year’s Seder? (Maybe: The whole thing! How could we ever forget a Passover in quarantine? These memories will quite literally last a lifetime.)
  • What can you experience this year that you might never have had a chance to previously? (Maybe: This year offers you the opportunity to write down and really codify those family recipes you love so much and to start getting a feel for making them yourself.)

Select a Video Conferencing Platform

Zoom is likely the most universally accessible option and it’s arguably the most reliable for larger groups. But—depending on how many people you’re hoping to gather—you could also host your virtual Seder on Facetime (the con of this choice is that all guests will have to have an Apple device), Facebook Messenger (perhaps via a Portal), Skype, or whatever other video conferencing platform you like. Include the link to your virtual call in the invitation to your event (more on that later!).

virtual passover table setting
Rebekah Lowin

Get Everyone on the Same Page With a Digital Haggadah

Yes, it’d be nice if we could all find copies of the dusty, musty haggadot we’re used to reading each year, but that’s just not possible in the virtual world. The next best thing? A digital one! Find my recommendations here, then include a link to the one you’ve chosen to use in your Seder invite so that your guests come prepared with everything they’ll need.

Alternatively, you could copy and paste pieces of the Seder service over to a shared Google Doc that everyone can view, but remember: that’s a pretty time-intensive option. After all, haggadot are not light reading.

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious and you happen to have enough on hand, you could always send the dusty, musty version out to family and friends in advance of the Seder. but some people aren’t so into snail mail right now and shipping beloved family heirlooms may not be the best idea anyway.

Send Invitations

No, it’s not traditional to send out invitations to a family Seder. In fact, I’ve never heard of anyone doing that. But these are different times. In my opinion, invites are all but required for virtual Seders—at least if you’re hosting a big crowd. They serve two very important purposes. One, they lend your digital gathering a celebratory, festive vibe, reminding friends and relatives to get excited about what’s to come. And two, on the practical side of things, they make it possible to consolidate all of the important information in one place. A link to the video conference number, a link to the digital Haggadah, the time of the event, and whatever else you’d like to include can all be found within that same invite.

Just remember: As you send out your invites, be sure to ask guests to keep the video conference link private. You can even ask them not to forward said invitation. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to invite all of our friends and family to join our Seders, and as much as we can value the spirit of inclusion, we don’t want anyone unexpected barging in on the night(s)-of.

Make It Interactive

The best way to get friends and relatives interested in partaking in a less-than-ideal, nobody-asked-for-this scenario is to give them some control. Hopefully, with the added responsibility of their new “role” or assignment, they’ll start getting excited about the Seder—and at the very least they’ll be a little more willing to actually attend.

Some ideas: One person can be in charge of food and he or she can reach out to guests in advance to help them figure out what to make for the Seder depending on what ingredients are available to them. Another can lead all things music-related—can he or she sing songs, strum a guitar, or play piano for this or that song? This or that uncle or aunt will figure out how to digitally “hide an afikomen” for the younger set (a guessing game, a word search challenge, a round of trivia…). The options end only when your creativity does.

virtual passover seder tablescape
Rebekah Lowin

DIY the Essentials—or Do Without Them

Safety has to come first this year. That means you shouldn’t rush out to the supermarket looking for a shank bone two days before your Seder. (Reminder: you really shouldn’t be going out at all.)

Good news: You can make your own Seder plate, cobble together said shank bone from a paper bag, and so on. Even if you’re not the crafty type, you’ll generally just want to make do with what’s already in your own home.

Don’t Worry About Perfection

Think of it this way: Comparisons are moot, because last year and this year just don’t exist in the same world. You’re doing the best with what you’ve got and knowing that saving lives matter more than any holiday, that is enough. Even if you can’t find a single box of matzah, there are still so many beautiful things that can come of your socially-distanced Seder. You may forge deeper bonds with family members you don’t see very often or dream up new, hilarious, profound traditions that you’ll want to return to next year and the year after that. After all, the trickier the logistics of this “Passover apart,” the more meaningful our attempt to host it at all. Right? 

Right. Here’s to life—and to saving lives. L’chaim.