Will next year’s Seder be Zoomed?

Why is this night different from all others? Jewish children have asked this question at the Passover Seder for centuries. Now, it is relevant to everyone. Coronavirus has upended our lives in ways unimaginable a few weeks ago. Businesses and schools are closed, and millions have suddenly become unemployed. People who have jobs are working from home. Restaurants are open, but they do take-out and delivery orders only. We wait on line to go into grocery stores, and we better be wearing a mask when we go out.

seder plate
A Seder plate with the six symbols of the Seder.

The Passover Seder is normally one of the most festive occasions on the Jewish calendar. In most years, families and friends gather for the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt; in some homes 20 or more guests are at the table. We consume four cups of wine and enjoy a hearty meal of traditional Jewish fare such as gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, and brisket as we rejoice and kibbitz the night away.

This year is different. Why? Because we are practicing social distancing and it is risky for people to travel. When we show up, we do not know whether the virus is lurking for us or we are bringing it into the house.

So, we have a choice: stay home and have solo Seders or use technologies such as Zoom, Skype or Google Hangout to gather remotely with family and friends in far flung places. That is what we did. My daughter, who lives in Boston, arranged for us to video-conference with her and my mother and aunt, who live in Florida.

Right now, these virtual gatherings are fun, but what happens when the novelty wears off? Will people go back to more conventional ways to communicate when the quarantine is lifted, and social distancing becomes a thing of the past?

Videoconferencing services are changing the way we work, worship, and socialize. My employer now holds weekly staff meetings remotely, with everyone sitting in their living rooms or home offices. One of our graduate students just did a remote defense of her PhD thesis from her apartment. We have just adopted a messaging service called Slack. What happened to the mobile phone and texting?

Colleges and schools have rapidly adapted to the changes thrust upon them. Within a week of ending on-campus classes, City University of New York made the shift to online education so its hundreds of thousand students could continue their studies. My daughter, who teaches middle school language arts at a charter school prepares lessons at home and uploads them to a file server so students can access them.

Even religious life has changed, and not just the virtual Seder. My synagogue holds morning and evening services via Zoom. They were not the first. A few weeks ago, my cousin, who lives in Minnesota, invited family members to join a minyan (prayer service) for the anniversary of her mother’s passing. I worshiped with family from around the country, including my mother, who now participates in online services from that synagogue every day. Churches and mosques are also holding online services.

A week ago, my cousin participated virtual get together with family on the other side to celebrate her other aunt’s 96th birthday. At least a dozen people joined the event.

Right now, these virtual gatherings are fun, but what happens when the novelty wears off? Will people go back to more conventional ways to communicate when the quarantine is lifted, and social distancing becomes a thing of the past?

Even though technology is enabling people to communicate in ways not available before, I do not think it is a substitute for direct contact, either in person or via the telephone. That is why some industries still have conferences and annual meetings that draw thousands from around the country and the world.

Just like cable television and Facebook before it, videoconferencing will become part of our lives, provided we make the sessions interesting and integrate it with other technologies. I look forward to seeing what is in store over the next five years, if only we can stay healthy.

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