Key elements used in the Passover seder are arranged for an online observance.

DUNWOODY, Ga. — The pandemic shuttered synagogues last year and left families scrambling to balance traditions with health.

With new expanded vaccine eligibility, some Passover seders may be held in-person with minimal risk. 

Passover is a weeklong Jewish holiday commemorating the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is marked with a feast called a seder, which may last several hours depending on family tradition and religious observance. Through several iterations of storytelling and symbolic food, the story of the Jewish exodus is read from a Haggadah. The holiday this year began March 27 at sunset.

Tradition poses a question during the seder: Why is this night different from all other nights? Given the first glimpse of a COVID-19 surge a year ago this month, this question continues to take on new meaning. 

The seder plate has several key ingredients to help visualize the story. 

A shank bone symbolizes the lamb’s blood painted over doorposts to shelter from the tenth plague. Charoset, a blended mixture of fruits, nuts, wine and spices is a reminder of the mortar used to build Egyptian cities. Bitter herbs and salt water represent the bitterness of slavery, while parsley greens call attention to an approaching spring season. A hardboiled egg is a reminder of previous burnt offerings.    

Also present is an abundance of matzah, the unleavened bread acknowledging the haste to which the exodus happened. An extra cup of wine is poured as an invitation to welcome strangers. 

A year now into the pandemic, families are still contemplating the best way to observe Passover, whether in-person or virtually again. 

“More Jews celebrate Passover than any other Jewish holiday, so this is one where people are really accustomed to celebrating in their own homes or going to somebody’s house, and it’s part of the custom to host strangers for dinner,” Senior Rabbi Spike Anderson at Temple Emanu-El in Sandy Springs said. “Last year, the unknowns were really dark and scary, and this year (they) seem to be much more optimistic and positive.” 

Temple Emanu-El scheduled a themed virtual Seder on March 28th, the second night of Passover, focusing on moral responsibility and societal injustices. The first and second nights were held online last year. 

Dunwoody-based Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) re-opened in June with added safety protocols and held virtual seders on March 27 & 28 led by Rabbi Brian Glusman. The virtual seder held last year was the first in the organization’s history.  

“Last year, given people’s need to connect spiritually, I made the decision to host two virtual Seders that were well attended,” Rabbi Glusman said. For the most enjoyable experience and reduced interruption, he recommends tuning the television, laptop or device to the webcast and following along. 

Using online platforms continue to pose challenges, especially keeping a large audience muted. Family gatherings have taken on an entirely new meaning this year. 

“Last year we devoted our energy at the seder to our friends and family that might have been on their own and (were struggling),” Jill Wheatley of Sandy Springs said. That tradition will continue this year in-person following her parents’ vaccination. Wheatley and her spouse Jason, have each received the first of two shots. 

Congregation Ariel, also in Dunwoody, hosted in-person services with social distancing and mask requirements. All classes were moved online last year as the pandemic spread, but Shabbat services continued to be held in-person with reduced attendance.  

Rabbi Binyomin Friedman from Congregation Ariel said, “Last year for the first time in my life I did not attend a synagogue. This year we are going to be open (and) that is the biggest difference you can imagine.” He said he anticipated a tremendous outpouring of emotion because “a lot of things you take for granted could go away and they did.” 

Sandy Springs resident Julie Mokotoff said Passover is a celebration of freedom.

“Last year and this year, our holiday will feel different, as it is not yet safe to come together with our family,” she said. “Despite this setback, it is important to tell the story of our freedom and to rejoice in our independence.”

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