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As Passover begins, a new meaning to an ancient story

The Goldwasser family, Matthew, JulieSue, Ari, 9, Alison, 7, had a Zoom rehearsal for their seder.
The Goldwasser family, Matthew, JulieSue, Ari, 9, Alison, 7, had a Zoom rehearsal for their seder.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

How is this night different from any other night?

It’s the ancient Passover question, but Rabbi Mendy Uminer of the Chabad Center at Chestnut Hill said he won’t be able to keep a straight face if he hears anyone around his seder table ask it this year.

For 19 years, Uminer has hosted 100 people or more for the holiday dinner. The Passover meal, or seder, is supposed to be a community celebration, a time to join with extended family and remember the story of the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt centuries ago with the divine intervention of plagues, togetherness, and unleavened bread.

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But this year is different from any other year.

With Uminer unable to host a large gathering because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’ll be just him, his wife, and their children.

As Jewish families and religious leaders across the world celebrate the holiday that started Wednesday evening, many are finding their traditions upended in ways both painful and somewhat lovely. Holiday meals are being held via Zoom and other online platforms. Extended families are unable to gather in person, but in some cases, far-flung relatives will be included for the first time.

And, religious leaders say, in many ways the Passover story of persistence and resilience in the face of sorrow has never seemed more relevant.

For Uminer, though, the stay-at-home order has brought to light hardship.

“Our mission is to make sure no one is alone for the seder, and that everyone has a place,” Uminer said. “So for us it’s a huge transition, and it’s a painful one. Because I know, on a regular year, how many people are alone and have nowhere to be."

In early March, with the number of COVID-19 cases steadily growing in Massachusetts, Uminer started thinking about the people who will have to lead their own seder for the first time — reading through the story of Passover, performing the rituals, setting up the seder plate with all its symbolic trimmings. He decided to order about 300 boxes to give away — a seder-to-go pack — for anyone in the community who wants it.

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And on Passover, he said, he’ll be focusing on the positive and thinking of freedom.

“It’s inherent in our soul to always fight for freedom,” Uminer said. “In these times, we find what’s more valuable than ever. That it’s not the materialistic things, it’s not the transient things, it’s the things that stay with us.”

Help is available for people struggling with organizing their first-ever virtual seder, said JulieSue Goldwasser of Needham, who is putting together a Zoom celebration with the parent-teacher organization at the Rashi School, a Reform Jewish independent school in Dedham. They’re expecting about 50 families, 20 of whom will have speaking roles. They have a song leader and a Rashi seventh-grader who has agreed to screen-share his virtual Haggadah, the Passover text. Anyone, even people without a connection to the school, is welcome to join in the celebration.

“Everything is different, but the seder remains the same,” said Goldwasser, who has a 9-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. “People just wanted to have a seder like they would every year, and they were yearning for consistency and ritual and connection with one another.”

Goldwasser has found YouTube videos of people singing “Ma Nishtana,” the song that asks how Passover night is different from the rest, for people who don’t want to sing by themselves; online Haggadahs for anyone who can’t get a physical copy; and a variety of video-chatting platforms, from Zoom to Google to Skype. Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston even has a timely guide called “How to Host a Virtual Seder During a Pandemic," and organized seder-to-go boxes.

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“These Zoom seders, they’re not going to feel like a normal seder. But it’s going to put smiles on all our faces, fill our spiritual buckets, and give us a little more motivation to move forward through this,” Goldwasser said.

So much of the seder is about the bittersweet, said Rabbi Elaine Zecher at Temple Israel of Boston. Part of the tradition is placing some bitter herbs between two pieces of matzoh — unleavened flatbread — and dipping the whole thing in charoset, a sweet paste typically made with apples, nuts, and wine.

“To find the sweetness in the bitterness, and to understand the bitterness in the sweetness. We can have them both, and one doesn’t cancel out the other,” Zecher said.

This year, Temple Israel of Boston will livestream its seder on the synagogue website for anyone around the world who wants to join, Zecher said.

She encouraged people to hold onto hope, even during difficult moments. That could mean remembering that families who usually live far apart can celebrate together this year by phone or video. It could mean checking in on neighbors and loved ones, and remembering what that sense of community feels like after the pandemic has passed.

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It could also mean still opening the door mid-dinner for Elijah, the prophet who, according to lore, stops by every seder table to take a sip of wine from a cup specifically reserved for him.

“Elijah, who heralds in a time when things are better. How amazing is that?” Zecher said. “We open the door to remind ourselves that there will be a time that we will open our door and others will come in.”

Zecher focused on the words that traditionally end the seder: Next year in Jerusalem.

People don’t have to interpret that literally, she said, but they can hope that next year will bring more unity, more health, more joy than this year.

“There’s a lot of hope that happens in spring, a lot of growth that happens and a lot of possibility,” Zecher said. “Redemption is possible, even when we might be convinced that it won’t be.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rabbi Mendy Uminer’s name.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.