“People are having to host Seders that they normally wouldn’t host,” said Jason Plotkin, program director for the congregation. “We are out of our comfort zones.”
Passover serves as the weeklong Jewish commemoration of the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and it will be celebrated across the world from the evening of April 8 until the evening of April 16.
The Seder is a ritual feast that marks Passover’s beginning, and it is typically performed by multiple generations of a family or by a community. In addition to recounting the history, a Seder also typically includes drinking four cups of wine, eating matza and partaking in other symbolic foods.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Congregation Emanu El opted to provide not only a Seder resource web page for its congregation, but it is also holding a Seder service virtually April 8 led by its clergy and across multiple platforms. The entire Seder, about 40 minutes in total, was recorded April 7 and will be made available April 8, and online prayer books are available.
Other congregations are offering similar plans, with Congregation Beth Yeshurun doing a service via the conferencing app Zoom and Congregation Beth Israel posting several resources and videos on YouTube.
In the meantime, the message from staff to concerned congregation members has been one of reassurance.
“There’s no judgment,” Plotkin said, referring to not being able to adhere completely to the Passover traditions laid out in the Torah. “You’re doing the best you can given the circumstances. You’re doing enough for your families.”
It was a similar approach Emanu El took a few years ago during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Plotkin said.
“In Houston, we are at somewhat of an advantage,” Plotkin said. “We are doing some of the same things during Harvey we are doing now. In some respects, not being able to be with each other laid the groundwork for what we’re doing now, apart.”
Even with a virtual service available, the Seder celebration still requires specific food items not normally found at the average grocery store, Plotkin said, which includes shank bone, egg, bitter herbs, a vegetable, and a sweet paste called haroset.
Emanu El worked with its caterer, Houston Catering Concepts, to deliver Seder food to those in its congregation who needed it.
However, the catering company decided to open up Seder food delivery to the larger Houston Jewish community, from Galveston to Katy, to anyone who called in prior to April 1, owner Michael Saghian said.
“This community has kept us going for 45 years, and we want to help them right now,” he said.
The caterer has 826 orders—approximately 3,400 meals at 1,000 homes that will be delivered on Seder through 30 delivery drivers, Saghian said.
“We’re very lucky that though the profitability on this is very low, we do have everyone working during a time where there is a lot of unemployment,” he said.