Religion in Quarantine: Claire Katz on "Zooming into Passover"

The following blog post is an edited excerpt from an essay appearing in the Network’s second eBook Project entitled Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World. This book features personal and research reflection on how their understanding of religion is being altered and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eBook is available for FREE download at:

Zooming into Passover
Claire Katz

My Passover Seder this year was a bit of “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” On the one hand, we did not have our typically large crowd of friends sharing matzo, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish and horseradish, brisket, and our flourless chocolate cake. On the other hand, because the pandemic closed the schools, our elder daughter was home from college, my husband was home instead of being at a conference typically held over this time, our younger daughter would not need to rise early the next morning to head off to school, and I was home all day to prepare food. A rare experience, we actually had our Seder on the traditional first night of Passover rather than waiting until the weekend when it would be convenient for our guests and for us.

That evening, just before we started the Seder, we called my mother who lives in a retirement community in Atlanta, Georgia. Her apartment building was on complete lockdown after one of the residents tested positive for the coronavirus. But just after we hung up, my younger daughter suggested we call her back on FaceTime and have her be part of the Seder. So, we did that — we called her back on FaceTime and set the phone on a corner of the dining table so that she could see everyone.

Although it’s possible we would have thought to do that under “normal” circumstances, I don’t think that we would have. Shifting our lives into our houses for long periods of time, working from home, and having no places to congregate, we have moved much of our social lives — whether teaching, work meetings, or social gatherings — to Zoom or other online platforms.

We are now socializing online not only with people far away but also with people who live near, thus changing how we think about what it means to socialize. The most mundane of activities like having a drink together are no longer possible. Thus, moving to an online version just to say hello means we are now thinking differently about how to connect with people.

Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, is my “home” synagogue. I have been a member of the congregation since 1992 — I had an adult bat mitzvah there in 1995, my husband and I were married there in 2000, and we had our younger daughter’s baby naming with our rabbi in Memphis in 2004. I am tethered to that synagogue and was grateful when I could stream their services for the High Holidays.

Experiencing services in this way is certainly not as meaningful as being present in person, sitting in that beautiful sanctuary, looking around at familiar faces I have seen over so many years. But I was grateful nonetheless to be part of a service that has always moved me and to hear a sermon from rabbis who always make me think and feel deeply about my relationship to Judaism.

The social isolation from this pandemic, however, has pushed us to think differently about how to visit with people, how to socialize, and how to engage in religious ritual, because now we must. The move to online social gathering is not even close to ideal, but it also opens a space for a possibility that did not exist previously — for family and friends to participate together in a ritual when, even under normal circumstances, they would not have been able to do so. But not being able to share a meal together will for me always be a marker of how impoverished the online ritual is.

On the one hand, the pandemic pushed us to find creative ways to honor the traditions and rituals of a holiday that is normally celebrated around a table with friends and family. And I am grateful for the technology that allowed us to do that. On the other hand, nothing can take the place of people sitting side by side, of passing the food, sharing homemade matzo ball soup, hiding and searching for the afikomen.

When I think to the future, I worry about the future of religious practice specifically for Judaism, which relies so much on sharing food and sharing our tables, not only celebrating but also mourning in a community with others. What will a minyan look like over Zoom? What will it mean to sit Shiva with someone who has lost a family member?

Zooming with loved ones who are far away, who would not be able to join us under the best of circumstances, is wonderous gift. But nothing can really take the place of actually breaking bread — or in this case, breaking matzo — with those about whom we care. I do not have the answers for how Judaism will need to think about these practices, I only know that something very special will have been hollowed out of Judaism’s soul if we are not able to practice our religion in the physical presence of others.

Claire Katz is the Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, where she is currently Associate Dean of Faculties. A specialist on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, she teaches and conducts research at the intersection of modern Jewish philosophy, contemporary French philosophy, philosophy of education, and feminist theory.