Thousands of years ago, during the last of 10 plagues of Egypt, when every firstborn son in the ancient land was given God’s death sentence – this was after the plagues of frogs, boils and locusts – Moses told Jews to stay inside and mark their doors with sacrificial lamb’s blood so that God’s wrath would pass over their homes, according to Scripture.

It was an early form of quarantine and became the foundation of Passover, believed by rabbis and biblical scholars to be the most important holiday in Judaism.

Certainly, we are not daubing our doors with blood during the COVID-19 crisis, but the parallels resonate.

“This is a holiday where we remember the story of being slaves in Egypt and God taking us out of Egypt through the 10 plagues and then the splitting of the Red Sea, so that we could be free,” Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio wrote in an email Wednesday morning. “We are told that every year on Passover, we are supposed to imagine that we begin the holiday still as slaves in Egypt, and by the end we are free.

“I believe this year, more than ever before, the metaphor is so meaningful for all of us. Many people may feel as though we are ‘enslaved,’ so to say, by not being allowed to gather in person. However, spiritually, it is an opportunity to reflect on how we can each better ourselves and become more ‘free’ in how we conduct ourselves daily.”

Abraham, along with Assistant Rabbi Ben Richards, led the first Seder of this year’s Passover on Wednesday evening at the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1898 in a Moorish-influenced, downtown building designed by noted architect J. Riley Gordon, and now is located in its fourth home, at Huebner and Bitters roads.

But the synagogue was empty of worshippers, due to stay-at-home restrictions, and the rabbis celebrated the Seder online, with congregants streaming the service live on the internet. It began with a singalong (“Listen King Pharaoh,” “Let My People Go,” “Plagues Are Coming” and, of course, “Pharaoh Pharoah” to the tune of “Louie Louie”) and then transitioned into the Seder.

Granted leniency by the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbis skipped the elaborate meal – matzo, bitter herbs, wine, green vegetable, lamb shank – that generations of families have enjoyed together. Worshippers were encouraged to eat their meal in small groups after the reading of the Exodus story, the Haggadah – literally, “telling” – “at their leisure.”

There was, however, plenty of wine. According to the Agudas Achim website, “Seder means order. The Seder is a service made up of ordered parts. The Seder is structured around the sharing of four cups of wine. Each cup conveys a theme of the Seder: sanctification, history, thanksgiving, and hope. At the center of the Seder service – its very purpose – is the story of the Exodus.”

Renée Glazier, a member of Agudas Achim, has been streaming services throughout the COVID-19 crisis. In a telephone call earlier this week, she said worship offered a sense of “normalcy and comfort.”

“It offers a sense of endurance, of hope,” said Glazier, who is in her 70s and moved to San Antonio seven years ago from Massachusetts. “These services are very grounding. They have existed for 5,000 years, so I think we will continue to exist.

“Of course, I worry for my children, my grandchildren, my friends, myself,” added Glazier, who planned to stream the Seder, as well as one at her nephew’s home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

“But I find the stability of services gives me a sense of normalcy in a time that is anything but normal. It’s a different world, a scary world — everything is topsy-turvy — but I do believe we will get through it. You can’t have a bad attitude. It’s not worth it. It’s not going to make anything better.”

The streamed Seder got off to a rocky start, with Rabbi Abraham explaining that the power went out at the synagogue just before the service went live. So, they put on their kittels, or pure white robes (“Some people ask, why are you wearing lab coats?” Abraham cracked), and began by singing “Take Me Out to the Seder” to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

If you were part of the more than 100 households — according to the livestream’s viewer counter — watching, and you were expecting a solemn occasion, this was not your Seder.

“This is a first for all of us,” Abraham said before getting started, “and I hope you will bear with us. We won’t be perfect, but it will be a happy celebration, one to lift your spirits higher and higher.”

The first 15 or so minutes of the 75-minute service showed two figures in the dark, in silhouette against large windows in the background. It proved that rabbis, too, are sometimes afflicted with nervous giggles.

And then there was light, and both rabbis visibly brightened.

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio and Assistant Rabbi Ben Richards lead a live-streamed Seder, the first of the Passover season, Wednesday evening in an empty synagogue.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio and Assistant Rabbi Ben Richards lead a live-streamed Seder, the first of the Passover season, Wednesday evening in an empty synagogue. Credit: Courtesy Congregation Agudas Achim

But the production values didn’t improve much. It was a low-tech affair, a blurry, static shot of two men at a long table covered in a white tablecloth, on which were positioned carafes of white wine, plastic cups, a bowl of water for the washing of hands and small portions of food, including square shingles of matzah.

What made it fun, however, was the happy, jovial and inviting mood. It was a scripted celebration, yet feeling not so, as the rabbis sang, chanted and recited, often in Hebrew, a service meant to be crowded with friends and family and highly experiential. They laughed frequently, played drumbeats on the tabletop, grinned at each other when they missed synchronizing their singing parts.

But as the Haggadah notes, “On Passover, we eat theology and drink ethics.”

In fact, there was a seriousness to the ritual, as well, as Abraham and Richards went through the Exodus story in song, lesson, and prayer: Moses discovered in the river as an infant by the Pharaoh’s daughter, his royal upbringing, his choice to exile with his own people, his encounter with the burning bush, and finally the parting of the Red Sea and leading his people to freedom.

At a couple of points, the rabbis paused and asked the congregants watching to reflect, for example, on the dual slave/master identity of Moses.

“How do you choose to see yourself?” Abraham asked. “For example, do you think of yourself as a Jewish American and an American Jew? Do you put your religious or national identity first?”

If congregants took up the challenge, we didn’t know: Again, the synagogue was empty but for two rabbis swimming in the uncharted sea of the virtual Seder.

There will be an encore Thursday at 6 p.m. here.

Across town, Temple Beth-El also will be live-streaming a second-night Passover Seder here.

In a website statement, Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El writes: “Throughout history, starting on that very first Passover, Jews have found ways to observe the holiday even when their future was uncertain. They experienced firsthand, the tension between the bitterness and constraints of servitude in Egypt and the sweet taste of freedom still yet to come in their own lives. This year, as we retell the story of the Exodus, I invite you to reflect on the constraints of the moment and how they might connect us to our people’s past, but I also encourage you to focus on the blessings you possess, and ask you to reach out to others in new ways, seeking ways to create connections and foster gratitude together.”

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Steve Bennett

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.