With Cheez-It communion and Zoom, Christians and Jews celebrate holy days in the time of a modern plague

Laurie Wolf (left) and her family celebrate in a screen shot from a Zoom seder she hosted.

At a normal seder, a few families gather around a dinner table and tell the story of the Exodus, how the Jews escaped slavery in ancient Israel. It’s a night of tradition, rituals and symbolic foods, but this year there was one major difference in many homes: the ceremony was conducted over Zoom. 

It made for some entertaining innovations. Usually, the leader of the seder has to wash his hands at certain points during the ceremony. At this seder organized by Laurie Wolf of Anchorage, hand washing had taken on a new importance, and not just for the leader. 

“This time, we invited everyone in all of the nine different locations to all leave the table and wash their hands and use hand sanitizer and just wash a little bit extra,” Wolf said. 

Passover celebrations also hold a connection to the plagues of Egypt, which the Torah tells were wrought on the Egyptians as punishment for enslaving the Israelites. 

“Of course we took some extra moments to recognize the plague of our current time, to reflect on that both in a way that we could joke about hand sanitizer but also in a very serious way and recognizing how this is impacting the world,” Wolf said. 

It took a lot more preparation from the nine families who participated, Wolf said. Normally, just the hosts prepare the various symbolic dishes that are eaten at precise times during the ceremony. This year, in order to coordinate, every family had to make their own at home. 

“Traditionally, one has chicken soup with matzo balls and so Laurie had to teach several of the people how to make matzo balls before we got started,” said Aron Wolf, Laurie Wolf’s father, who was the leader of the seder. 

That way, each family could partake in the same dish at the same time, even if some were hundreds of miles away. 

For Christians, last week was Holy Week, which remembers Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. It was also filled with symbolism and reminders of how much has changed. 

In preparation for Good Friday, the day Jesus is said to have been crucified, members of ChangePoint Church normally take communion with special wafers dipped in wine. This time, congregants were advised by Pastor Scott Merriner in a video shared online not to risk their health with a special trip to the store.

“Saltines are certainly traditional, I rummaged through my pantry, didn’t find saltines but I did find some Ritz crackers, those would work. I also found some Cheez-Its, those would work,” Merriner tells congregants in the video. 

Then came the “wine.” 

“For the blood of Christ, again, you can use anything you can drink. We use grape juice. Ruth and I use diet grape juice, and that, thankfully, is big on the flavor and not big on the sugar,” Merriner said.

Holding on too tightly to traditions can miss the point, he said.

“This is about remembrance, it’s not about having the right beverage or the right representation of the body of Christ, it’s about having the right heart attitude,” he said.

An Easter drive-in service at the Anchorage Baptist Temple (Photo courtesy of Stephen Nye)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s spelled out official guidance on how churches should conduct Easter services. 

With gatherings and non-essential travel banned, the governor suggested one way folks could still gather to an Easter sermon: drive-in services were officially allowed, provided that there was enough room in between cars – the allotted 6 feet.

In a crowded parking lot in East Anchorage, Anchorage Baptist Temple’s Pastor Ron Hoffman found ways to interact with the families behind windshields during Sunday’s Easter Service. 

“Today I want you if you’re out in the parking lot to give me a shout by honking, let me hear ya!” he said.

Enthusiastic honking ensued. 

Anchorage Baptist Temple was one of the few churches around Anchorage that decided to hold such an event. With cars parked in specially taped parking spots, the sermon was broadcast over a radio station, and a large video monitor projecting the services. Scott Levesque, creative and communications director, said that getting together in that way gave something that live streaming just couldn’t.

“Being able to see cars or see people through the window that they wished they normally would be able to sit next to gave people a new sense of excitement hope, and at the same time we were able to share the gospel,” he said in a phone call on Monday morning. 

Many other churches said they didn’t have an adequate space for holding a drive-in service. They settled for something that after the last month of innovation now seems quaint and traditional: streaming on Facebook Live. 

Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin contributed to reporting