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Celebrating Seder In Today's COVID-19 World

Max Nathans/Flickr

As Holy Week is being celebrated this week, the main concern is how to do it safely. In part two of his Holy Week and coronavirus series, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody looks at how Passover services in Pensacola will be conducted with the help of technology.

Passover begins at sundown Wednesday and runs to sunset on Thursday. Despite the changed norms, the holiday remains the same – commemorating the Exodus, when Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in ancient Egypt. The story is recounted during Seder, with the food symbolizing the steps of their escape.

Among the services to be streamed onto the Web are those from Temple Beth-El in downtown Pensacola, where Joel Fleekop is rabbi.

“We’ve moved all of our temple programming virtual and we’re going to be doing the same with our Seder,” said Fleekop. “Normally we’d have a big communal meal at the temple with over 100 people – a catered dinner – and this year we’re going to be asking people to prepare their own food and gather virtually over the Internet and join together to share the holiday that way.”

This is an opportunity to have Seder, a ritual feast marking the start of Passover, with their own families; those who are sheltering with them, and with loved ones near and far online.

“I’m going to be doing a second night of Seder with my siblings who are on the West Coast, because since we can’t be together with our neighbors, it’s a good chance to connect with family at a distance,” Fleekop said. “We’ve been running some workshops and other programming to help prepare congregants to lead their own Seder this year as well.”

Fleekop concedes that the COVID pandemic is creating uncharted territory, and there have been some hiccups along the way with the technology.

“Teaching people how to log in; [but] some of the networks aren’t as equipped for the amount of video conferencing that’s happening in the world right now, so that’s been a challenge at times,” Fleekop said. “Educating people on how to use different video conferencing technologies; some of them have been my mistakes, but we’re making progress.”

One challenge is getting older members of the congregation – who did not grow up with computers and the Internet – up to speed.

“Normally, what we would be able to do is to go into some of these senior facilities or retirement communities if we knew we were going to be doing things virtually in advance, and run some classes,” said Fleekop. “But because of the way this came down and because some of those senior residences closed early – for good reason – that hasn’t been possible. So we’ve been relying on their friends and neighbors who can talk them through it.” 

Credit Dave Dunwoody / WUWF
Rabbi Joel Fleekop, Temple Beth-el in Pensacola.

This is the time of year — Passover and Easter — when people reach out to their houses of worship. But Fleekop says for now, the rules have changed.

“This is normally a time when we could welcome them to come to our Seder at the temple and really to greet people,” Fleekop said. “We’ll do the same, but it’s not quite as warm and friendly to say, ‘oh, here’s a chance to join us virtually,’ as opposed to being able to bring them into our temple and to feed them and to really let them feel the warmth of the community.”

The main message in the foreseeable future, says Fleekop, is for people to obey the guidelines put forth by medical professionals and the government to keep safe and hopefully avoid COVID-19 while framing that in terms of their Jewish values.

“Our sages teach that saving a life supersedes everything,” said Fleekop. “They may have concerns about how they can keep kosher for Passover as stringently as they have in the past, or how can they connect with other parts of Jewish life – and we’re encouraging them to do that virtually. But to remind them, the most important thing right now is their safety and the safety of others.”

And if nothing else, Rabbi Joel Fleekop says this unusual Passover can be used in an especially meaningful — albeit different — way.

“Hopefully people can use that time for more directive conversations, to really think about what it means to be free [and] what it means to go out from Egypt,” said Fleekop. “In Hebrew the word for Egypt is ‘Mitsrayim,’ which also means ‘narrow places.’ And I think many of us feel like we are in narrow places at the moment.”

For more information on finding an online Seder that’s right for you, visit www.unisyn.org.