Temple Israel rabbi: A Zoom Seder with ‘varying degrees of heavy hearts’

Marcia Zimmerman
Marcia Zimmerman

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All interviews are edited for length and clarity.

Marcia Zimmerman, rabbi, Temple Israel 

It’s been a lot of preparation. For temple we’re having two nights of Zoom Seder. Last night there were 130-plus households tuned in. We engaged a lot of people the first night. Tonight is the second Seder, which is usually a big gathering at the temple, so it will be interesting to see what happens. We had a service this morning as well and attendance was double what’s normal, so in some ways we have more engagement. It’s not exactly the engagement that replaces person-to-to person, but it does engage more people in Jewish ritual and Jewish ceremony. 

We split the staff; last night I was off. We just had a Seder with our kids and my sister and brother-in-law and their kids, because they all live in Minnesota and we always spend Passover together. That was fun. It was a lot of fun. We called it the apocalypse Seder of 2020. 

It was just perfect. Usually we read through the entire Haggadah. My husband’s family has a tradition of having all the kids tell a liberation story that they experienced in the year, so we kind of brought that  back. All the kids — they’re young adults — told their own liberation stories. They’re all involved in social justice work, so everyone told a social justice story that they experienced. That felt really good to come back to an old tradition from my husband’s family, who are Holocaust survivors. 

We read a story of four parents who were friends in Hungary and both survived the Holocaust and raised their families next door to each other in Cincinnati, Ohio. They used to do a Seder, so we read one of their Holocaust stories. I read her story about receiving a tattoo in Auschwitz and how she saw it as a lifeline. That somehow the tattoo — in her case, not in all cases — was saying they weren’t going to kill her. She sees her tattoo even today as that. So we read that story. 

It was just a beautiful night. You can’t do it in the way we would normally do it, so how do you make it meaningful? You have to be really thoughtful beforehand, whereas we’re so used to doing this tradition and everyone shows up and I might look at the Haggadah a little bit and ask some questions. But I really had to think about what was going to make this meaningful. 

We had a pre-meeting about the second-night Seder. There are three of us rabbis. We’re sort of switching it up to keep it interesting. There are the questions and the story you tell. We’re telling the story in more of a script. We’re trying to do it in a fun way to keep it more interesting. We usually ask a table to read or call out people’s names, but it’s harder to do that with Zoom — it’s too much interaction. We’ll keep it centered around the leaders and try to engage people with a little bit of humor and a little bit of telling the story. 

People are coming with varying degrees of heavy hearts. Some people are alone in their house and we would normally do everything in our power to get them to somebody’s house if they didn’t have friends here so nobody is alone, that’s always our thinking. So we’re reaching out to people who are alone. We’re reaching out to people who have lost several family members in our congregation to COVID-19. We have people whose loved ones are in the hospital, so we have people with really heavy hearts. Not that we don’t have that on a normal day, but usually not as many in our community have a heavy heart in as major a way. 

This is really the first time I’ve not been with a family when somebody is dying. It feels so wrong to me. And they’re not with their loved ones. We’ve had to do blessings at the end of life over the phone. The dying people are comforted by that, just hearing it. But the survivors are feeling so bereft. 

We have had congregants pass away from COVID-19. I’ve done 13 funerals since we’ve started talking. The last five that have died have been COVID positive, all with underlying conditions. Then I’ve talked to people who have relatives that were in very good health, maybe in their early 70s, who have died. It’s getting to be a lot for the community overall. 

What’s so hard is sometimes the people are in situations where they can’t understand what this is and they feel we’ve abandoned them. People we’ve been visiting once a week or twice a week in nursing homes and all of a sudden we’re not there. They don’t understand. That’s what’s so hard is the feeling of abandonment. It’s so painful, and there’s no way of explaining. It’s just so hard.


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