With the pandemic stretching beyond a year, we are now entering the second season of Seders on Zoom. How can we energize ourselves and others to create meaningful Zoom Seders — again?
While we can come up with new activities to do at our Zoom Seders —from sharing videos to participating in virtual Seder games — I actually don’t think that is what most people are seeking this Passover. People want their virtual Seder experiences to be as real as they can.
Online events are most successful when they enable all participants to feel as if they are in the same room together. And I believe this can be accomplished with the right Zoom Seder techniques.
Here are 10 tips for how to make your virtual Seder feel next-to-normal:
1) Shared Tastes: Zoom does not currently have the option to share tastes or smells. To create a sense of shared space wherever your “guests” may be, make sure participants have some of the same foods or drinks at their tables. Surprise your Seder guests by shipping everyone a piece of your famous matza apple kugel (chicken soup is a bit tougher to mail!). Gift your guests with the same type of wine or send participants links to recommended wines and desserts.
If mailing foods is not an option, host a Zoom event the day before the first Seder so that your guests can learn to make a special family dish together. Or just send around a favorite recipe before the Seder and urge everyone to make it.
2) Haggadah: I would recommend sticking to an old-fashioned Haggadah as opposed to a virtual Haggadah so that everyone is literally reading off the same page. Send links for friends and family members to order a Haggadah if everyone doesn’t have the same version. As tempting as it is to display the text of the Haggadah via Zoom, the “share screen” option takes away the ability to see everyone easily on the screen. If you must use the “share screen” option at the Seder, do so sparingly.
3) Zoom Link: Make it as easy as possible for all generations to join in. Send a link via email and text so that individuals have different ways to access the correct link (with an embedded passcode, of course). Test the Zoom link in advance with one or two others to make sure it works so there won’t be a last-minute glitch. For any family members who aren’t tech savvy, do a pre-Zoom run-through with them the day before.
4) Video: Remind all participants to turn their video on and encourage them to show their full faces on the screen (not their foreheads or the ceiling). For individuals who will be Zooming into your Seder from an iPad or an iPhone, send them links to phone stands that allow them to prop up their devices and hold a Haggadah at the same time. (Putting books under a laptop or other device also lifts the camera and results in a more flattering image.)
5) Audio: Don’t make the rookie Zoom mistake of having multiple devices in a room with their audio on. To avoid the inevitable feedback, designate one device at your Seder table as the device that will be “Connected to Audio.” Any time someone wants to speak or lead a part of the Seder, they will use this designated device. Other Seder participants in the same physical room, with their audio off, will see everyone’s faces on their own devices, but the audio will only come from that one main device.
For larger Zoom Seders, encourage participants to mute themselves when they are not speaking to cut down on unwanted noise.
6) Inclusion: Hand out parts in advance (which is a great tip for pre-pandemic Seders as well)! Think about how to make people at a distance feel more included this year. Prepare a list of who is leading which readings and who is asking which questions. Feel free to encourage participants to ask modern questions as well.
7) Chat: The Zoom chat function allows users to type messages to one another or the whole crowd. Using chat recreates the side talk typical of an in-person Seder. At the beginning of your Seder, take a moment to chat (or share out loud) what each participant is grateful for this Passover.
8) Use Your Surroundings: Share ritual objects or photos connected to past generations. In the Magid section, when we recall our Exodus from Egypt, you can encourage participants to hold up objects that represent their own family’s journey from one place to another. Members can be spotlighted as they hold up each object or they can unmute briefly to say something about their item.
9) For Young Kids and Young-at-Heart: This year, decorate your dining room walls since they will be more prominently featured than usual. You can also mail participants decorations for their Seder tables, from plastic jumping frogs to plague sets to Passover sticker books— anything to keep restless hands occupied!
10) Seder Surprises: While we wait for Elijah, encourage a friend or family member to turn off their screen and re-appear as Elijah the prophet. Jewish celebrities are welcome to make seder cameos as well. Barbra Streisand, I’m happy to have you lead Chad Gadya at our seder if you are available!
We should be able to create a virtual Seder where our friends and family members feel excited, engaged and most importantly “seen.” If we succeed, as the Haggadah tells us, “Harei zeh meshubach” — “it is all the more praiseworthy!”
Rabbi Yael Buechler holds Zooms for hundreds of families each week at The Leffell School in Westchester. She is also the founder of MidrashManicures.com that has new Matza Playhouses for Passover 2021.