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Cyber Seder | Jewish community celebrates Passover amid coronavirus

Passover is a celebration about overcoming adversity–as such, congregates rose to the challenge of staying in touch.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — You can add new word to the Jewish lexicon, and it's 'Zeder': as in, Zoom Seder. 

This is how several congregations and organizations are observing Passover this year during the coronavirus pandemic. It's all virtual.  

"Families and congregations will be doing their best and sort of muddling through the technological components to bring families together and allow them to participate in Seders as best they can, digitally," said Willie Recht, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. "There could be hundreds of thousands of Zeders happening tonight across the country and across the world."

Many congregations in Sacramento have put together virtual Seders to mark the beginning of Passover. One such example is Congregation Beth Shalom [CBS] in Carmichael. 

"We knew that Passover, particularly, is such a time of gathering," said Carol Schreiber, administrator for Congregation Beth Shalom. "It was going to be difficult and...we needed to do something to support. So, cyber was really the only way for us to go."

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On April 9, the second night of Passover, CBS is hosting a Cyber Seder via Zoom. This event is open to everyone, but will include traditional services from 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. 

In an announcement for the event an uplifting message reads: "The Red Sea couldn't stop our people, and neither will COVID-19."

It's all in keeping with the overall theme of Passover — overcoming adversity.

"[It's] different for us, obviously, but exciting," Schreiber said. "We're just concerned with supporting our community. How do we staying touch when we are supposed to be so out of touch?"

It is a difficult situation, but places of worship like CBS are finding the silver lining amid the coronavirus pandemic. Both CBS and the Jewish Federation in Sacramento have already added a number of resources on 'cyber living.' CBS is adding new online programs every day.

Credit: Congregation Beth Shalom

Passover commemorates the Israelites' escape from Egyptian slavery and is about perseverance, which is why virtual Seder is almost fitting for the occasion. 

However, though moving services online is essential for staying in touch, it also opens up a new avenue of issues. 

Those of the Jewish faith observe certain traditions during Passover, especially when it comes to food. Kosher food is of course a must, but unleavened bread is also an essential part of the holiday. 

"We raised money, an emergency campaign, because there's lots of seniors in the community without family," Recht said. "Maybe they're homebound, maybe they don’t live in a community, so many of them can't access Passover food. They're not gonna be part of a Seder."

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Seder is typically celebrated with a large group of people–some congregations host gatherings of hundreds of folks. There are prayers, songs, and food. 

As such, social distancing has alienated members of the community who have no other means to participate in these cultural and religious events. How will seniors and those at-risk be able to obtain the necessary foodstuffs? 

The Jewish Federation of Sacramento turned to home-deliveries, focusing on bringing kosher foods and matzo to those in need. 

"[We wanted] to make sure even those homebound seniors, the people who might not have a way to participate either digitally or in-person, had a little bit of Passover with them," Recht said. 

Since seniors in particular may not have access to the technology or the know-how necessary for a Zeder, Congregation Beth Shalom also brainstormed some solutions. 

"We have also–the rabbi and members of our congregation–since we decided we were going this way, have been physically making phone calls to people and walking them through," Schreiber said. "We sent our Haggadah, the link to our Cyber Seder, out via email to our entire congregation and the local Jewish community in the area."

Schreiber acknowledges that not everyone is on their computer, which is why reaching out via phone is so important. 

RELATED: Sacramento faith centers prepare to celebrate major religious holidays at home

"This is also something that we started to do way before we even thought of a Cyber Seder, and we will continue to do while members of our community are in this quarantine situation."

Email is one thing, Schreiber states, but hearing somebody's voice and making sure they're okay is another thing entirely. That's what makes a difference. 

She identifies these phone calls as 'soul checks,' and says the initiative was mostly geared towards seniors because Zoom meetings are still very new to many older folks. 

For both Schreiber and Recht, one thing is clear: the Jewish community will rally and remain strong during this uncertain time.

"I think that this situation has really brought out a very true and genuine sense of kindness within everybody, and willingness and wanting-ness to check in on people and connect with people in a way that wasn't happening," Recht said. 

Though many things have changed in the last few weeks, the community moves ever forward. 

"We are always a very tight community and a particularly supportive community, and even outside of the Jewish community, we're very inter-faith oriented," Schreiber said. "It's wonderful, once again, to watch this larger community come together and support each other across the lines of religion."


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