It was a Passover Seder like never before for the Sacks family of Phoenix. In past years, the family has hosted this meaningful tradition in their own home, gathering loved ones around them. This year, the setting was Zoom video conferencing.
The Sacks’ son Charles patched in family and friends from coast to coast for the Wednesday evening dinner. All counted, 17 people in 10 cities in five states placed iPads or laptops on their dinner tables to pray and eat together — virtually.
At first, parents Erik and Marilena Sacks were a bit skeptical of their son’s conferencing plan, but not for long. The dinner lasted the usual full two hours. “People got into talking together and really connected. It had a surprisingly good feeling. It flowed really well,” Erik Sacks said.
In some ways, the dinner seemed more comfortable, he said. Usually, their dining table is jam-packed.
The COVID-19 pandemic clamped down in Arizona just in time for the major spring religious holidays of Passover and Easter. Stay-at-home and social distancing requirements have left families searching for creative ways to celebrate.
Holiday staples — such as big meals and community religious services — have gone virtual or into smaller groups. Churches and synagogues are doing video and online religious services. Conferencing services like Zoom, Facetime and Skype are becoming the new vehicles of family celebrations.
Many Jewish families plan to continue to connect through video conferencing throughout the eight-day Passover holiday, which began the evening of Wednesday, April 8 and continues until the evening of Thursday, April 16. Passover commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from enslavement in Egypt. The main ritual of Passover is the Seder, which occurs on the first two nights (in Israel just the first night) of the holiday. The festive meal involves remembering the Exodus through stories and song and ritual foods, including matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs).
For the Easter holiday on Sunday, Christian families also are seeking new ways to celebrate old traditions. Many events have gone virtual.
In a recent survey of Raising Arizona Kids email newsletter readers, 15.4 percent of respondents said they plan to connect with family members via video chat this weekend and 17.3 percent said they will attend virtual services. Others will enjoy cooking at home (24.4%) or take-out (17.3%) and many will make sure the celebration includes plenty of outdoor recreation (25.6%).
The Kitchell family of East Mesa was looking forward to Apache Junction’s annual community Easter egg hunt. Their 7-year-old son, an only child, was disappointed to learn it was canceled. But mom Carrie Kitchell found online that the popular annual event has been re-organized into an “Egg-cellent Scavenger Hunt.” From April 9-12, families can cruise around in their cars to spot large Easter eggs placed on storefronts and community facilities.
She was grateful. “We’re used to going to events for Easter, so just to be able to do something out of the house this year brings a little more normalcy back into the holiday,” she said. “We’ve had to look harder for ideas online and focus on new traditions rather than what we’re missing out on this year.”
To have some safe extended family time, the Kitchells plan to do Facetime meetings with their cousins over the weekend. They’ll also have an Easter egg hunt and movie night in their backyard.
The health crisis has curtailed other families’ large, traditional celebrations. Every year, the Cupone family books an Easter Sunday brunch at a luxury resort for up to 15 family members. The festivities include big Easter baskets for the kids and post-brunch bonding time. This year, they’ll forgo the big gathering, given concerns about their elderly grandparents and the spread of COVID-19.
Chrysanthe Cupone started Easter activities early so that her 3-year-old daughter Lilyana has a full holiday. They colored Easter eggs together Thursday on the patio of their Phoenix home. This weekend, they will bring Easter dinner to her parents’ home, keeping all at a safe distance with dinner and an egg hunt outside in the yard. Easter goodies are being ordered online this year rather than risking unnecessary trips to the store. Lilyana’s Easter basket will be brimming but with more non-perishable items such as toys from online shopping.
“We had to be a little more creative this year,” Chrysanthe Cupone said. “We’ll still have quality time as a family. Maybe even more so because we won’t be running around as much — we can sit and relax and just focus on being together. We’re even excited for that reason.”
Still others have cut back nearly all Easter activities due to coronavirus concerns. Easter week for Kathy and Bob Hubbard usually centers around Catholic religious services culminating in a big post-mass Sunday dinner for their six children and 22 grandchildren in Phoenix. But not this year. All large gatherings are on hold. Instead, their family members are attending online religious services offered throughout the week by the Franciscan Renewal Center and other Catholic churches. Instead of one big Easter Sunday dinner, the family plans to celebrate in separate, smaller groups based on their locations in the Valley.
“We’re taking this [pandemic] very, very seriously,” said Kathy Hubbard, owner of Hubbard Family Swim School.” We just don’t want to put our large group together right now. But it’s hard to be apart at Easter.”