At the conclusion of his second night seder this Passover season, Beth El’s Cantor Thom King plans to supplant the traditional closing phrase “Next year in Jerusalem!” with a triumphant exultation of “Next year in the Offit Auditorium!”
He also jokes that he will observe the custom of opening the door for Elijah the Prophet at the end of the seder, but not for too long. “After all, you don’t know where he’s been!” Cantor King says with a hearty laugh.
Like many Jews around the world, Cantor King will share his seder with family members and friends this year via the virtual capabilities of Zoom and other means of video conferencing. But the cantor, who lives in Pikesville with his wife, Shazy, will be officially hosting the second night seder for his congregation of more than 1,700 families and individuals, as well as others in the community.
The interactive seder will be presented via Zoom and Facebook Live on Apr. 9 from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” he says. “Nobody is 100 percent comfortable [with virtual services and religious gatherings]. It’s not ideal. But it’s better to share online than not to do it at all.”
Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Cantor King was organizing a second night community seder to be held at Beth El’s Pikesville facility, with approximately 250 people already signed up. The seder is a longstanding congregational Passover tradition conceived and initiated by the late Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, who served as Beth El’s assistant rabbi and senior spiritual leader from 1976 to 2008.
Once the synagogue officially closed its physical structure in mid-March due to the outbreak, “we figured, ‘Why not just turn it into a virtual seder?” says Cantor King, 64, a native of Willington, Ct., who came to Beth El in 1998.
With a congregational tech expert managing the proceedings remotely, Cantor King will lead the seder with his wife, their three children, and most likely the fiancé of one of his daughters. The cantor says he has no idea how many people will attend remotely.
“It’s our own personal, standard second night seder, but people will feel like they’re with us and be invited to share it with us and all together,” he says. “It’s never been done before. It’s uncharted territory.
“I think some people will stay and participate throughout the entire seder, while others will drop by casually,” he says. “What’s great about all of this is that we’ve become more adept at reaching people [remotely] over the years. In some ways, we’re reaching out to the community now more than ever before. We’re there for them.”
Cantor King says his family will use an iPhone throughout the seder that will be moved around for different vantage points from time to time.
“We could run into some technical problems, but we have pretty good Wi-Fi in our house,” he says. “It should be interesting to see what happens.”
For his wife, Cantor King says, this year’s seder will be a lot easier than previous Passovers. In past years, she generally prepared seder meals for between 50-75 people at their home. “She’ll have a lot less work this year,” he says.
Assignments are currently being doled out to various congregants and other attendees for readings during the virtual seder.
“The key to an event like this is to identify the people who will be a prominent part of things, so that they’re front and center,” the cantor says. “Everything has to be done ahead of time, so we can call on them and see them [on the screens].”
Cantor King says the Beth El Haggadah, created 16 years ago by Rabbi Loeb and the congregation’s current senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, will be used at the seder. During the actual Passover meal itself, a test-pattern will be presented onscreen and the seder will pause until the second portion of the service.
“People will see it’s a fairly simple family seder,” Cantor King says, “nothing too complicated.”
One thing that will be a little different for most viewers is that the Kings have a longstanding tradition of performing an amusing mini-play during the seder’s readings of the Maggid, the storytelling portion detailing the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.
“This year, we’re going to try to get people on Zoom to participate in the play,” says Cantor King, hoping his followers won’t say dayenu — or enough! — to that participatory segment of the seder.
Meanwhile, the cantor says he and his family are in the midst of discussing creative and virtual ways to get viewers to search for the afikomen and chant the Mah Nishtanah.
“We think that will be a lot of fun,” he says.
What might throw a chink in the armor, Cantor King admits, is the possibility of a time delay or lag during the program. But he says he and his family, and the congregation, will no doubt make the best of the situation.
“We’re just overjoyed that we can do this, even though the community seder was cancelled,” he says. “As it says in the Haggadah, ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat!’”
The irony of celebrating a holiday, whose backstory is rife with plagues, during a pandemic is not lost on Cantor King.
“By turning inward and staying in our homes, we are helping to avoid the plague and keep ourselves and our families safe,” he says. “That’s what Elijah wanted us to do. So we have to be philosophical and realistic and go with the flow this year.
“But at the same time, we’re going to make it fun and meaningful as well.”
For information, visist http://www.bethelbalto.com/worship/services-live-stream.