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To Zoom or not to Zoom?

The essence of Passover is the opposite of social distancing

Sorraia Tavares and Zheydan Tavares, 4, prepared to eat matzah during the annual Cape Verdean-Jewish Passover Seder at Hibernian Hall in 2014. This year will be different.
Sorraia Tavares and Zheydan Tavares, 4, prepared to eat matzah during the annual Cape Verdean-Jewish Passover Seder at Hibernian Hall in 2014. This year will be different.Boston Globe/file

A year ago most of us had never heard of Zoom.

This year the video conferencing tool is a lifeline for many people, including those observing Passover, one of the most celebrated holidays in the Jewish calendar. The essence of Passover is the opposite of social distancing: The Seders, held on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, are all about squishing many people around not so many tables, reading the Passover story together, sharing food, spilling red wine on the white tablecloth.

It goes without saying that most Seder tables will be downsized this year, and even Web geniuses haven’t found a technological way to pass the brisket. But at least families and friends can gather virtually, light holiday candles at the same time, say prayers, and take turns reading. (Singing Passover songs may be a bit trickier, since Zoom is designed for voice, not music, and there can be an audio lag during songs.)

Many people will be Zooming with families and friends, and some congregations and Jewish organizations are hosting communal Seders, or Seder-related events.

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Temple Israel of Boston is hosting two “grand communal Seders,” on the first two nights of Passover, each an hour long; anyone can join. The Boston Workers Circle will host a public social justice-oriented secular Seder in advance of the holiday on April 5. Temple Beth Avodah in Newton is offering congregants a pre-Passover “virtual Seder plate” a few hours before the first Seder. A few temple members have been invited to share personal stories and readings.

“My gut experience of Passover has been that it’s about fellowship and sharing of food and stories and love, and nothing can replace that,” said the Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah. “We see this as a delicious sampling of Passover love and practice and fellowship.”

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“I will be inviting my synagogue into my home for Passover,” said Rabbi Marcia Plumb of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, who will set up a computer on her dining room table and conduct the Seder from beginning to end, with no break for dinner. People will eat their own meals afterwards.

“I hope to have 100 people at the table with me, all sitting in the “gallery” via Zoom,” she said in an e-mail. “We ask the same four questions every year, at every Seder [about] why, the Seder ritual is practiced in the way that it is. But this year I will add four new questions to our Seder: ‘Do you have Zoom? Can you mute yourself? Can you find gallery view? Can you use chat?’”

Using Zoom is more complicated for Jews who are Orthodox and strictly follow the Torah and Jewish observances. Orthodox practice prohibits the use of electricity and electronic devices on Shabbat (Sabbath) and the holidays.

But in an extraordinary departure from tradition this year, some Orthodox rabbis in Israel have ruled that, given that this is “a time of emergency,” it is permissible for people to use Zoom at the Seder so families can stay connected. They note that many Jewish youth “might not have a Seder if not for their connection with their grandfather and grandmother” and that it was important “to remove the sadness from seniors and the elderly and to give them motivation to keep fighting for their lives, and to prevent depression and mental weakness.”

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Complicating matters further is that this ruling came from Sephardic rabbis of Spanish, Portuguese, and Mideastern descent. But this year some Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis of the Central and Eastern European tradition are willing to consider the use of technology to relieve social isolation in cases of mental illness on a case by case basis, according to Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton.

In a letter to his congregation he wrote that leniencies are permissible by Jewish law "to use technology in cases of health risks to psychological and mental well-being.”

“It boils down to this,” Samuels added in an e-mail to the Globe. “No Orthodox rabbis in Israel or the United States are trying to rewrite the laws of Sabbath and Festival observance. They are saying that social isolation and mental illness are serious health risks. Judaism unequivocally believes that it is permissible to do otherwise forbidden activities in order to save lives.”

The Chai Center of Brookline is leading a 2-part virtual Zoom class called “Learn to Run Your Own Seder.” Part 2 will be held Thursday, April 2, at 8 p.m. Contact Rabbi Mayshe Schwartz for a link to both parts: mayshe@getchai.com