This year’s Pesach will be different from all others, as UK shuls embrace technology to observe the holiday amid social distancing measures.
From delivering matzah and grape juice to isolated congregants to taking seders online, Jewish communities up and down the country are adjusting to life under lockdown.
United Synagogue, which is live-streaming many of its services, will be holding a virtual pre-seder night next week.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis ruled last week that technology can be used to connect families up to an hour before Pesach seders. Remote prayers, chanting and singing are encouraged, so grandparents can join in and “share in a lovely way, interactively,” the chief rabbi said.
United Synagogue is offering members over a thousand kits containing seder plates, educational material and a three-course meal, available at a subsidised rate for those in need of financial assistance.
“Given the sad necessity to cancel communal sedarim this year, this is one of the closest things we can do to a communal seder,” explained the head of the movement’s Chesed department, Michelle Minsky.
Meanwhile, demand for United Synagogue’s food aid parcels for the festival soared this year, the movement said, with 900 free packages being delivered, up from 600 in 2019, after an emergency fundraising appeal.
The movement’s Pinner Synagogue delivered packages to around a dozen isolated members last month. “It was massively appreciated. People were extremely emotional to receive these packages on their doorsteps,” says Karen Kinsley, the shul’s welfare co-ordinator.
The synagogue is set to deliver seder plates next week, hot soup and a re-heatable meal, to over 30 people, who have been identified as at risk.
Similarly, volunteers at the S&P Sephardi Community are offering free Pesach packages containing matzah and grape juice for those unable to source products themselves during the pandemic.
The community, which has been broadcasting classes and services online, is hosting virtual Pesach classes, led by Rabbi Shalom Morris, of Bevis Marks Synagogue. The Sephardi rabbi, who is responsible for the movement’s own seder-in-a-box initiative, has also set up a WhatsApp group for congregants.
Liberal Judaism, which is offering three online copies of The Haggadah, including an abridged and a child-friendly version, will be offering virtual seders for members at home.
Rabbi Sandra Kviat, who leads the Crouch End Chavurah, which is affiliated to the Liberal Movement, is encouraging members to bake their own matzah while also arranging matzah deliveries for those unable to source any locally.
“In Crouch End for example you can’t matzah locally, fascinating. There’s no big supermarket. There’s a small Waitrose and a small Co-Op, and a teeny tiny Tesco’s, and they don’t stock matzah,” Rabbi Kviat says.
“Those who are self-isolating can send their neighbours down to the local shop to get vegetables but you can’t ask them to go all the way up to Golders Green to buy matzah,” she adds.
Reform Judaism, which has launched its own video broadcasting platform called RJ: TV with a weekly schedule of activities, has uploaded its own Haggadah online, available for free, as well as additional Pesach-related resources.
Alyth Reform Synagogue, which has planned an array of pre-Pesach activities, is one of many communities offering virtual first and second night seders.
Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, who pleaded with members of the community last week to take all precautions when grocery shopping ahead of Pesach, is offer an online second night seder directly from her home.
In Bournemouth, the Reform Rabbi Maurice Michaels will be leading a beginner’s guide to Pesach on Skype, explaining how to prepare a seder “for those who don’t really know or have forgotten.”
He is set to home-deliver CD recordings of his own seder and Pesach morning services to around a hundred congregants without an internet connection. The Reform rabbi said he is planning to create CDs with material to mark Yom ha-Shoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron later this month.
“Probably as much as a third [of my community] don’t have access to the internet, so although it would be straight forward to stream services, and all sorts of other things, there’s a huge proportion of the community unable to get any benefits out of it,” says Rabbi Michaels.
“What we have decided to do was to create some podcasts that have gone up on [the music streaming website] Soundcloud, which we are then burning onto CDs because the vast majority … have got CD players,” he adds.
Chabad Lubavitch UK is to deliver 4,000 seder kits, which include instructions, plates and food items,”will be crucial for people who otherwise likely wouldn’t have a seder,” according to its chief executive Rabbi Bentzi Sudak.
“No one should have to choose between their safety and having a seder. For those in isolation or quarantine who have never conducted a seder on their own, the included guide and seder supplies will make that possible,” he adds.
Meanwhile, St Albans Masorti Synagogue’s Rabbi Adam Zagoria Moffet is planning a virtual seder on the fourth night of Pesach for those unable to observe the ceremonial dinner on their own. Congregants will be sent an outline of the seder and The Haggadah in advance, and some members will be asked to lead sections.
“It’s not normally the time that we would have one, but under these conditions it seemed like the best time to do our Zoom unity seder,” Rabbi Zagoria Moffet says. Asking congregants to tune into the video conferencing platform during yom tov, he adds, wouldn’t “capture the intimacy of a seder.”
But despite the challenges, not observing this year’s Pesach seder would be a missed opportunity, he adds.”The paradox of trying to talk about freedom when many people feel very trapped is actually productive because in some ways it’s the best possible year to have a seder and have that conversation.”
“What does it mean to be celebrating freedom and liberation when you can’t go out of the house, when you can only go out for one hour of government-mandated exercise,” he asks.