How to host a Seder in these strange times

Find your way to a meaningful Seder during the pandemic.

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The author.

We make plans and God laughs.  It looks like another Passover apart from family and friends in 2021. So, let us think with the benefit of hindsight about what we can do this year to make our seders meaningful for all our guests, both in-person and virtual. 

The Seder has three basic objectives to consider. To have a successful one this year, a little advanced planning can make all the difference.

  1. Religious -- The Seder is a theological exercise in memory.  We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and God's fulfillment of the promise to settle us in the land of Israel.  We do that through an interactive storytelling experience using the same basic technology in the 21st century that we used in the 11th century: the Haggadah , the seder plate and accoutrements, special foods, and rituals. 
  2. Communal -- The Exodus from Egypt to Israel took 40 years to form a disparate catchment of slaves into a unified community.  We gather around the Seder table as families and friends to reconnect with that community and recommit to each other every year.
  3. Social -- The Seder celebrates and strengthens our social bonds as families and friends.  It is an opportunity to mark the passing of time in a positive way by seeing the children grow and engage with the Seder each year, by family stories being retold every year, family recipes being set out again, and new customs and memories being formed as the family dynamic morphs over time.

The critical component to meeting all these objectives is active participation by everyone at the Seder.  In our generation where our attention spans are short, it takes extra effort to engage everyone.  Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind to help ensure a successful Seder this year in this time of plague.

  • Reframe your perspective from being a Seder leader to a Seder host.  Seder leaders often are tasked to "complete" the Seder in a valid way.  A Seder host, though, can facilitate the Seder so that everyone contributes to the experience to make it a success rather than just an obligation.  If this is your first time hosting a Seder because of the pandemic circumstances, ask an older family member or a friend who you know has experience doing it for advice on some dos and don'ts from their knowledge base. 
  • Recognize the changes in your Seder makeup this year and consider making a few changes to accommodate the differences. Because of the pandemic, many families are willing to pivot and experiment if their religious practice allows for it.  If you are doing a Zoom Seder, you know most people have 60-90 minutes of attention before Zoom fatigue kicks in. There are excellent Haggadahs available that accommodate those attention spans and still cover all the religiously required steps. 
  • Remember that hosting a successful Seder is about the whole experience and not just the actual ceremony.  Send family recipes around in advance for favorite foods so that those who are at different tables can still share common foods.  If your usual guests are local but not able to join you, consider organizing a food swap for dinner items. 
  • Hosting a good event takes prep time.  One of the pitfalls of Seders historically is that, because they are often led by the same people from year to year, they can become rote.  If you want to make your Seder a success in a time when you cannot rely on old habits, be sure to carve out time in advance to think through the evening in detail.  

God willing, this is the last year when we will have to intentionally separate at a time we long to gather.  But for now, a little planning by the host -- and some more active involvement by everyone attending --can turn last year's one-off Seder experience into this year's family memory.  Happy Passover! 

 Rabbi Scott T. Aaron, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for JUF Education. 



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