Restaurants like Huckleberry are offering Passover menus for takeout and delivery. (Courtesy photo)

With Passover and Easter falling right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, religious communities are modifying traditions that date back thousands of years. 

Many Jewish families are preparing to hold Passover seders Wednesday night via video chat, each participant using their own seder plate and matzah but all reading from the same haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Some Santa Monica synagogues such as Kehillat Ma’arav and Beth Shir Shalom are hosting Zoom seders or live streamed services for the Shabbat before Passover.

But Chabad Santa Monica is advising members to video chat family and friends before Passover begins at sundown, since many Orthodox and Conservative Jews refrain from using electronic devices during holidays, said Chabad youth director Sara Levitanksy.

Chabad has distributed nearly 100 seder-to-go kits for members who can’t get to the grocery store or leave their homes, she added. Local restaurants like Huckleberry, Birdie G’s and Pasjoli are also offering Passover menus for delivery and takeout. 

While people will miss having a joyful seder with their loved ones, Levitanksy said this year provides an opportunity to reflect on the suffering and redemption of the Passover story.

“A lot of the time we get carried away with the outer aspects — joking around, the food — and not the real intent of what Passover is all about,” she said. “A message for today would be that right now we’re slaves to our own fears and anxieties, and this year we can concentrate on using our faith and belief in G-d to break through those barriers.”

Jews celebrating a modified Passover won’t be alone this year or throughout history, Levitanksy said. 

“If you feel alone or that doing it this way is so depressing and sad, you weren’t the only ones. For the past 3,000 years, whether hiding out during the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust or Siberian exiles, many people throughout the ages have experienced Passover in this way,” she said. “Even this year, you’re not alone — Jews all over the world are doing the same thing at the same time.”

Local churches are recording or live streaming services for Holy Week and Easter and encouraging congregants to maintain a sense of community with each other.

“It’s a fine balance between trying to keep people connected, but also realizing that everyone is trying to figure out a new rhythm and every other organization in their lives is overwhelming them with information about what they’re doing related to COVID-19,” said the Reverend Tim Vance of First Presbyterian Church. “We want people to have the freedom to pay attention to what’s happening in their own lives and travel through this season in whichever way seems helpful.”

Vance and the Reverend Eric Shafer of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church said they are also leading interactive services Thursday via Zoom to give congregants a chance to discuss the Last Supper, which is usually commemorated on Thursday during Holy Week through communion and ritual foot washing.

“We’ll do a service and a brief worship and then just let people talk,” Shafer said. “We’re suggesting they eat dinner together rather than have communion together.”

For Good Friday, Vance said First Presbyterian, United Methodist Church and St. Paul’s Lutheran are co-hosting a virtual Tenebrae service that combines the roughly 1,500-year-old ritual with yoga and breathing exercises.

“It will be a traditional Tenebrae reading of the last week of Jesus’ life interspersed with blowing out candles — it’s a movement into complete darkness,” he said. “They’ve woven into that body movements and breathing in response to each candle being blown out. Blending such an old ritual with those new things is really interesting.”

St. Monica’s Catholic Church is already an established presence online, said Loreena Garcia, the church’s communications and development coordinator. The church has been live streaming services online since 2012 and draws thousands of people from across the country and world each week, she said.

St. Monica’s is now holding webinars on how to observe Holy Week while sheltering at home and is looking into virtual Bible study, Garcia said. Ministries within the church talk together through Zoom or FaceTime to help participants feel connected to a community while self-isolating at home. 

“None of the excitement or momentum of Easter has changed, it’s just taking place in a virtual room rather than the church,” Garcia said.

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