Is coronavirus causing you to lead your first Seder? Are you scrambling to put something together without the usual players at your Seder? Are you wondering how on earth you can do a Seder alone? Have no fear! You will be fine. Seder will be different this year but that is okay. Making the Seder relevant and responsive to our reality is exactly what Jews have been doing for thousands of years.
Here are my tips and suggestions for creating a meaningful Seder:
1. Clearly define your goals
Do you want to read every single word in the Haggadah? Do you want your Seder to have a specific theme (ex. Refugee Seder, Social Justice Seder, Feminist Seder, Covid-19 Seder, Israel Seder, etc.)? Do you want your Seder to be conversation-based? Maybe you just want people to feel inspired or more connected after. None of these are mutually exclusive but it’s critical you have a destination before you begin your Seder journey.
2. Know your audience
The best Seders are self aware and target those around the table or the virtual table for many this year. With fewer people in attendance, you have more flexibility to highly customize your Seder. If it will be you, your partner, and three little kids, your Seder should look radically different than a virtual Seder with dozens of millennials. This may seem obvious but many make the mistake of just doing a Seder they are familiar with and fail to recognize the diversity of their Seder participants.
3. Preparation is essential
Anyone who thinks they can open the Haggadah on Seder night and have a meaningful Seder is fooling themselves. Jewish law even requires one to begin reading and learning the Haggadah the Shabbat prior to the holiday. Take advantage of the time at home and prepare ahead. If you have multiple versions of the Haggadah glance through them and collect highlights to share. You can also pick out which sections you want to dive deeper into or certain sections you plow through. If anything, it will make your Seder flow and seem less choppy.
4. Get everyone involved
The Seder needs to be participatory. The smaller Seders this year again provide a unique opportunity for those who usually keep to themselves as they feel overwhelmed to share their insights or ask questions in a big Seder. Every single person should speak! When you plan ahead, you can even assign sections of the Haggadah for certain people to lead and facilitate.
5. Prepare lots of questions
The Seder is built around questions. In Jewish tradition, a question is more valuable than an answer, teaching us to value exploration and not discovery. “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught. Curiosity is not sacrilegious but a vital religious virtue. On Passover we replicate the experience of going from slavery to freedom by drinking wine, reclining like royalty, and eating a delicious meal. However, the Seder teaches us that the highest expression of freedom is asking questions. By asking “why” we take the first step into freedom. Preparing questions ahead of time for each section is a game changer.
6. Make it relevant
The Seder should not be dominated by making connections of the virus to the Exodus story but it does need to be addressed in some capacity. How has social distancing or being in quarantine refined our understanding of being “enslaved” in a specific space? Has the virus changed our relationship to the ten plagues? While it may not seem so, other things are going on in the world, try to reflect back on this year and include other current events in your discussions.
7. Quality over quantity
Less is often more. Some years, we sacrifice the quality of the Seder with having more people in attendance. Everyone in education knows that smaller class sizes leads to higher learning, but sometimes, especially around the Seder we prioritize the family or communal gatherings over the content. This year, we don’t even need to wrestle with this challenge. The sages also struggled with the proper balance between quality and quantity. Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: “Let your home be wide open” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:5), while the Rambam demanded a maximum of 25 students under one teacher (Laws of Talmud Torah 2:5). And in general, Rabbi Yosef Caro stated, “It is better to say a small amount of supplications with intention than to recite many without” (Shulchan Aruch 1:4). Pick your spots wisely — value depth over breadth. Do not feel guilty if you don’t get into every single word of the Haggadah. Again, know your audience, and prepare ahead.
8. Create a new ritual
Seder night is all about memory. My deepest memories are of the silly/unique family customs that emerged from our Seders. For example, my bubbe who was an immigrant from Mexico (her family was denied entry to the United States when fleeing Europe) always ended the Seder by singing Mexico’s national anthem. My mom made me do Ma Nishtana while standing on a chair with matzah on my head. Now that I run my own Seders, we started our own customs like inviting complete strangers to join us when we open the door for Ha Lachma Anya (“This is the bread of affliction”). Several years ago, three drunk Irishmen joined and did the 4 questions in Gaelic! This year is a perfect time to create a new ritual into your Seder.
9. Be fully inclusive
Some years we can be more selective about who we do Seder with. This year we may not have that option. Whether on Zoom or in person, people of all backgrounds end up at a Seder. Be open to trying new customs or entraining new ideas. Use more english when necessary, assume this could be someone’s first Seder. This is important even in more traditional Seders where people are familiar with the Seder. Going back to the basics will always provide new insights.
10. Be flexible
You can plan and plan, but the Seder will demand improvisation no matter what. Whether a reading you thought would be engaging is falling on deaf ears, or a random part of the Seder is actually creating a profound discussion — you need to be flexible and be willing to go with the flow. In some way, making these choices is a powerful expression of your freedom. Always have a pulse of the Seder. This goes back to knowing your audience also. Being adaptable, knowing when to speed up or slow down is crucial.
Good luck! You can do it.
Seder tips for Passover in the coronavirus era
Rabbi Jonathan Leener is a co-founder of Base Hillel, a new initiative in Jewish engagement, and rabbi of its Brooklyn site.