DIY digital seder: online Jewish community ready for Passover in the age of physical distancing

Rabbi Denise Handlarski’s “Secular Synagogue” was ready to spend this Passover miles apart long before physical distancing became a reality. Handlarski created the group after reflecting on the deep bonds she had formed in other online communities, including parenting and fitness groups.
Rabbi Denise Handlarski and her adapted seder plate. (Submitted by Denise Handlarski )

Rabbi Denise Handlarski's congregation is uniquely prepared for physical distancing.

That's because the "Secular Synagogue" has been meeting virtually for over a year. Now, they're preparing for their second annual video-conference Passover seder.

They figured out how to hold a digital seder last year. 

Congregants around the world connected over the Zoom video chat service, each with their own seder plate featuring a roasted egg, matzah, bitter herbs, salt water, an animal bone, vegetables and charoset — a brown mixture symbolizing the brick and mortar used to build the Egyptian pyramids. 

"We also include a beet as a shank bone option for plant-based people, an orange for LGBT inclusion and Ruth's mix (almonds, raisins, chocolate) for intercultural families," Handlarski said.

Together, they followed a modified digital Haggadah, the Hebrew text describing the order of the seder — though not without challenges. 

The Haggadah calls for a retelling of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. It's common to sing songs of praise afterward, like Dayenu.

"One thing that's tricky to do online is sing. So that's the one thing that people are figuring out with digital seders," said Handlarski.

"Very often it means everybody mutes their microphones and one person leads the singing, because that way you don't have a time lag. But most of it came together so beautifully."

An intimate online community

Handlarski's Secular Synagogue community meets monthly, either around Jewish holidays like Passover or for more secular events like guest speakers or a book club. 

Handlarski was inspired to found the group after reflecting on the bonds she had formed in other online communities, including parenting and fitness groups.

She found that the ease and frequency of online communication created a deeper connection than infrequent in-person meetups. 

Secular Synagogue's video conference. (Submitted by Denise Handlarski)

"One of the reasons I became a rabbi was because I realized that people were starved for meaningful connection and starved for meaning, period," she said. 

"A lot of our lives are very busy, but are lacking in something that feels substantial and spiritually satisfying. So I want to explore how we use the online space to change some of those dynamics to foster real connection and to bring people meaning."

Handlarski also manages the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, an in-person congregation where she has made some meaningful connections. Yet she only sees most members of this community once a month, or every two weeks if they attend all the events.

"But the people in my online community I interact with several times a day," she said.

While online communities are often criticized for their lack of intimacy, Handlarski believes they create a space where members are able to be vulnerable.

"I find that distance can make people feel comfortable enough to reveal things about themselves, because they don't have to look somebody right in the face as they do it," she said.

As for whether tradition should dictate how ancient rituals like Passover are performed, Handlarski said "tradition really gets a vote but not a veto." 

She said she tries to be an open-minded feminist while performing any of her duties as rabbi, whether they're in the physical world or online. 

"My values around justice will always supersede things that I would do to honour tradition," she said.

"If there's a practice that's sexist, or homophobic, or in any other way I think is in conflict with our contemporary values around justice, I'll always choose justice."