As the Jewish holiday of Passover begins Wednesday night, it is set to become one of the most unusual in living memory. Extended families normally gather for a special meal, but it will take a new form as loved ones embrace technology to keep each other safe.
"Passover is probably the most celebrated holiday in the whole Jewish calendar, in part because it's a holiday where you bring people into your home," Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey told Cheddar. "With social distancing, that's basically impossible."
"What people are doing is they are condensing their Seder [the ritual meal]. Many people are celebrating just with their immediate family. Others are taking to Zoom or to other online platforms. But they're not letting this virus stop them, and they're making community even if it's just virtually."
Crucial to the Passover ceremony is the Haggadah, the religious text that recounts the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. A number of Judaic publishers, Katz said, are offering free digital versions of the Haggadah for use in personal or digital Seders.
The rabbi said he will lead a digital Seder himself for hundreds of people to help retain a sense of community through the important holiday.
"We're already thinking creatively about how to have break-out groups even within the virtual platforms to make that happen," he said.
The impact of the coronavirus on Jewish congregations has spread beyond Passover, however. The outbreak has forced religious leaders of all denominations to rethink how they interact with their communities.
"We've had to shift our whole approach. We've had to call homebound seniors. We've had to make our services live-streamed and over Zoom. We've had to change our programming model and have many more programs for smaller groups of people so there are touchstones for people who are living alone and [want to] be able to interact with each other," Katz explained.
This is in addition to offering basic services such as picking up groceries for older members and holding digital funerals and shiva (the week-long mourning ritual) for members that have died and their families.
"The whole model of what it means to be a community is much more diffuse," Katz said.
The rabbi also feels that it's his job to address the spiritual toll of the coronavirus outbreak, which has left many congregants frightened and feeling alone.
"If religion can't stand up to this and can't face and offer something to people in a crisis, then what's the point of religion," he said.