Resources for Pesach in a Time of Quarantine

It may be hard to imagine a seder during sheltering-in-place or quarantine. But the Passover seder is a home-based ritual that can be meaningful even when one is homebound. Even the possibility of a solitary seder isn’t new: Talmud teaches that if one is alone at Pesach, one should ask the Four Questions of oneself. Whatever we do this year won’t be “the same” as the kind of seder most of us are used to, but nothing about this year is the same as usual. Maybe the very strangeness of this year’s seder can help us experience the spiritual dynamics of the Pesach journey in a new way. Here are some tools for building this year’s seder:

Building Blocks of the Seder

The core mitzvot of seder are:

  • bless juice or wine (and drink four cups, or sips, thereof) 
  • recount the story of the Exodus in some form 
  • bless and eat matzah 
  • assemble a seder plate, and explain its elements 
  • eat a celebratory meal 
  • read or sing words of praise (traditional psalms – or contemporary poetry?) 
  • eat a bite of afikoman (ceremonial matzah to end the meal) 
  • recline / reflect on freedom

You don’t need a fancy seder plate if you don’t have one on hand; a regular plate is just fine. Here’s a list from the URJ of What Items Go On the Seder Plate. Some also add an orange (representing the inclusion of all genders and sexualities), an olive (representing hopes for peace), a tomato (representing migrant/farm worker safety), and/or other meaningful items.

Blueprints For Your Seder

If you don’t have haggadot at home, here are some free downloadable haggadah options. It’s a good idea to download a haggadah in advance and spend some time with it so you can move through it comfortably when seder time arrives.

Of course, the haggadah is only a roadmap. Your internal spiritual journey will be shaped by you.

A Ritual to Close the Week, Too

Here’s a resource for celebrating a different kind of seder on the seventh day of the holiday (rather than the first or second):

If you experiment with a seventh night seder, we hope it will help you feel that you’ve “come through the sea” and are able to sing out in praise on the other side.

Not Like Other Nights

This year is not like any other year. Whatever seder is for each of us this year, it will probably not be what we’re accustomed to. We trust that the ritual will still hold meaning, even though (or maybe especially because) we’re experiencing it in an unprecedented way. What does it mean to recount the tenth plague in a time of quarantine? What does it mean to seek to experience spiritual liberation at a time when many of us may feel “bound” by anxiety or illness or circumstance? What does it mean to celebrate Pesach meaningfully if we are home alone? We look forward to hearing your answers to these questions as the holiday unfolds this year.


Bringing Sketchnoting to the B-Mitzvah Classroom

The first time Steve Silbert sketchnoted one of my divrei Torah, I was enthralled. The things he chose to highlight showed me what he found interesting in what I had written. His images uplifted my ideas in a new way. His sketchnote, rooted in my d’var Torah, was also its own piece of Torah creativity. That first sketchnote was my introduction to the spiritual technology of Visual Torah, now one of the tools Bayit offers for building Jewish life and practice. 

In 2019 Steve came to Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat to teach the art and spiritual practice of Jewish sketchnoting to a denominationally diverse group of rabbis, most of whom insisted that we couldn’t draw. Steve taught us that sketchnoting is about ideas, not art, and that anyone can do it: even us. By the end of that session, all of us had taken a crack at sketchnoting… and I had a vision of using sketchnoting to uplift my Hebrew school teaching. This year, I invited Steve to join my b-mitzvah class remotely, to teach the basics of sketchnoting to my students.

  1. Educating the Educator

The first step in bringing sketchnoting and Visual Torah to my b-mitzvah classroom was the workshop that Steve led at Bayit’s rabbinic innovation retreat. Because I had that experience of learning to use sketchnoting myself, and also because I’d spent a year watching Steve create Visual Torah for a full cycle of parshanut blog posts for Builders Blog, I had some understanding of sketchnoting and Visual Torah as both spiritual practice and learning tool. 

For anyone else who wants to bring Steve and this practice into your Hebrew school classrooms, I would strongly recommend some one-on-one sketchnoting learning with Steve first. Especially if he’s in the room remotely / via videoconference (as was the case here), it’s important that he have a hands-on partner in the room who understands sketchnoting both spiritually and pedagogically.


  1. The Runway

The week before his visit, I asked my students and their parents to reread the Shema and V’ahavta and to make a list of five things in that prayer that they thought were important.  

Each Monday I email my b-mitzvah parents to let them know what we’ll be learning that day. On the day when Steve was going to visit our class, I explained to parents that a digital visitor would be introducing sketchnoting, a spiritual technology designed to give their kids a new way of engaging with Torah and a new way of engraving their learning on their minds and hearts. 


  1. The Classroom Visit

My students seemed bemused at having a guest teacher appear on my computer, but they got used to it quickly, and treated Steve as though he were sitting at our table. 

First Steve took us through a visual vocabulary exercise. Each student had a pad of Post-It notes and a Sharpie marker. “Draw what comes to mind when I say the word ‘idea,’” he told us. “Don’t overthink it, you have ten seconds, go.” Most of us drew lightbulbs. One person drew a thought bubble. (Almost everyone chooses one of those two images for that word, Steve told us.)

“Okay, now draw ‘house.’” We drew little boxes with triangular roofs and maybe a door and a window. “Draw ‘love.’” We drew hearts. Each time we tore off our post-it notes and stuck them to the whiteboard, we noticed that we had drawn variations on the same theme. Though none of us consider ourselves artists, we share some basic visual vocabulary. We have simple pictographs in mind for basic words — door, hat, flower — and we can convey those in images. 

Then Steve gave us a set of Jewish prompts: mezuzah, Torah, hamentaschen, Ten Commandments, Shabbat candles. It turns out that we have shared visual vocabulary there too. 

And then we moved into the Shema and V’ahavta. We talked through the lists of five things that each student had considered “core” in that prayer. Some ideas were common across everyone’s list and others were more individual. 

Still working with post-its, we took a crack at drawing each of the five items on our lists. And then we placed them on a page, with the shema in the center and the five ideas circling around it like spokes on a wheel. Because we were working with post-it notes, we could rearrange our items at will.

By the end of the class, each student had a draft of a sketchnote exploring the core ideas of the Shema and V’ahavta.


  1. Re-Inscribing

A few weeks later, when we returned from winter break, we re-inscribed our sketchnote learning. I took the students through the basic visual vocabulary and basic Jewish visual vocabulary exercises again, to remind them that this is something they can do. 

Then we engaged in the same sort of exercise with the blessings before and after an aliyah of Torah. Questions that came up included: how might we depict God on a Post-It note? How about chosenness? “From among” all peoples or “along with” all peoples? And then each student arranged their Post-It notes to create a sketchnote of that prayer. 


  1. Did it “work”? (Yes.)

The sketchnoting lesson with Steve kept my students active and engaged. In that sense it was an immediate success. 

A few weeks later, I asked students what had stayed with them about studying the Torah blessings. They volunteered the images they had drawn. Having put pen to Post-it, they retained the core ideas they had depicted.

Studies have shown that writing or drawing something by hand inscribes it on the brain in a different way than reading it or even typing it. Sketchnoting these prayers gave my students an opportunity to engage using a different part of the brain than usual. And translating these prayers into images and rendering them with their own pens gave my students a different sense of ownership than just learning to read or sing them. (As one student said, “now that I put it on a Post-It, it’ll really ‘stick’ with me!” And that has turned out to be true.)

Based on the success of these experiments, I have other sketchnoting plans. We’ll sketchnote mitzvot, spiritual practices, the b-mitzvah journey. Based on what I saw in my classroom, I’m certain that Visual Torah and sketchnoting deepened my students’ engagement with the tradition. I can’t measure “how much” it impacted them, but I can see that it did.  I’m excited to see what will flow next from their pens.


by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat with Steve Silbert.

AJL wants Beside Still Waters in “every Jewish library”

Another great review of Beside Still Waters — this one from the Association of Jewish Libraries!

Rachel Barenblat, ed. Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal. Bayit: Building Jewish. Teaneck, NJ: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019. 179 pp. $18.00. (9781934730010).

There is a plethora of books, including several recent volumes, on comforting the ill and dying and their loved ones. This volume, edited by rabbi, poet and writer, Rachel Barenblat, contains teachings, readings, and services to guide the mourners.

The editor (named by The Forward in 2016 as one of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis) has divided the text into several parts, each marking a traditional period from death (including several versions of Vidui) through the first Yahrzeit. The book includes full Mincha and Ma’ariv services, with a variety of alternative readings, including two versions of the Amida prayer. In addition, there are numerous readings and poems directed to mourners at each stage of the journey and throughout the services. Many of them are from well-known names (Jill Hammer, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi); others are from less famous rabbis and authors. Each recitation of the Kaddish has a different interpretive text by a well-known modern thinker.

The result is that the process is made accessible to everyone, from observant to non-practicing Jews. This small book is filled with wisdom, both ancient and modern. It is meant specifically for spiritual leaders, i.e., rabbis, Chevra Kadisha staff, prayer leaders, and counselors. But its readings can provide comfort for mourners at all stages of the process. It should be considered for every Jewish library; we all can use its kind words.

Fred Isaac, Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA

Rabbi Jack Riemer reviews Beside Still Waters

Rabbi Jack Riemer reviewed our first print publication, Beside Still Waters, for the February 2020 edition of the Berkshire Jewish Voice. The review is reprinted below. Buy copies from your favorite bookseller or directly from Ben Yehuda Press, where you can also get a large-print edition. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more.) Deep thanks to R’ Riemer for the review and to the Berkshire Jewish Voice for publishing it!


Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

Meditations on mourning and mortality, edited by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel

 Reviewed by Jack Riemer

For most of us, prayer is a closed world. Some of us know Hebrew, and some of us know the melodies and the choreography that go with the prayers, but who among us knows how to speak to God in prayer? Most of us are fairly good at keeping up with the service, but who among us knows what it means to pour out our souls to God? And yet, ever since the day when Hannah went into the Sanctuary alone, that is what prayer means according to the Jewish tradition.

Some of the meditations in Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a collection of “liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path” edited by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, fill a real need.

Ours is a death-denying culture, in which we are taught to ignore the oncoming of death so as not to make those around us feel uncomfortable. And so it is good to have a few different versions of the Vidui here, which is the prayer that we are supposed to say before we die.

Ours is a culture that tries to repress pain and anger, and so it is good to have a prayer to say in memory of someone who has hurt us, and whom it is hard to forgive.

Ours is a society in which most of us stand before the yahrtzeit candle with no idea of what to say, and so it is good to have a meditation for this sacred moment that can help us give expression to the feelings that we have inside.

Most of us mark the end of a year of saying kaddish by hosting a breakfast for the minyan, or by promising to stay part of the group, even though we know that we won’t, and so it is good to have a prayer available in which we speak to the one for whom we have mourned and still mourn, and wish that person an ascent to a new level of holiness, and in which we promise that the one for whom we have recited kaddish is and will continue to be a part of our lives.

Space permits just a few examples of passages that spoke to me.

On the Amidah

I have never been comfortable with the version of the first blessing in the Amidah that ends “pok’ed Sarah” – if, for no other reason, than because “pok’ed” in the Bible often means to punish. And so I am pleased to find “ezrat Sarah” in this book, instead, because it means “Sarah’s helper,” which makes a perfect parallel to “magen Avraham” (Abraham’s shield).

On Prayers of the Shema

Blessings to Zalman Schachter-Shlomi who, in the years before most of us had ever even heard of global warming or climate change, rendered the second paragraph of the Shema as a prophecy of what would happen if we continued to mistreat the Earth. Thanks to him, the “Vihaya im Shamoa,” which used to make us uncomfortable because it sounded like a threat from God who controls the rain, now speaks directly to our souls. What once seemed like a prayer that was far behind the times now reads like a prayer that is ahead of our times.

We owe much to the poet who gives us a fresh version of the “V’ahavta” blessing of the Shema in this collection. We owe whoever it was for the phrase: “with every heartbeat, with every breath, with every conscious act” simply because it is so much more alive than the “with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might, ” which we have been saying for so long that we no longer hear it.

And how much more alive are these words:

“Teach them to your children, talk about them at work,
Whether you are tired or when you feel rested.
Let them guide the work of your hands;
Keep them in the forefront of your vision.
Do not leave them at the doorway or outside your gate.”

Let me be clear: This text is not meant to replace the standard one. On the contrary, it only works if you know the original version, so that you can understand why the poet speaks of the work of your hands, or the forefront of your vision, or of the doorway to your house, each of which echoes a passage in the traditional prayer book. It is living midrash that the author is creating here – not a substitute for the text that we grew up with.

On Ma’ariv Prayers

We have said the prayer that thanks God for bringing on the evening so many times by now – both in Hebrew and in English – that it no longer helps us feel much awe at the setting of the sun. And so, I welcome this version of the prayer for the setting of the stars, a brief excerpt from which I cite below:

“The sun wheels over the horizon
Like a glowing penny falling into its slot.
Day is spent, and in its place the changing moon,
The spatterdash of stars across the sky’s expanse.”

There is more in this collection, including some pages that do not touch me and some that may not move you. But try it for yourself, and you may find in it echoes of moments when the soul of the writer danced or yearned or sighed or sung or screamed with pain. And you may find some pages that will stir you to do the same.


Rabbi Jack Riemer is the editor of New Prayers for the High Holidays and the three volumes of The World of the High Holidays, and of two new books of Jewish thought: Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket.

BESIDE STILL WATERS, A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is published by Bayit: Building Jewish and Ben Yehuda Press, Teaneck, NJ 2019. It is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher, and costs $18. (Discounts are available for bulk orders of 10 or more at the publisher’s website.)

#MenschUp with Ushpizin

What qualities do you want to bring into your sukkah this year?

Here’s a download that features a classical set of Jewish values: lovingkindness, boundaries, balance, perseverance, humility, rootedness, nobility. (You might recognize those seven qualities as the “seven lower sefirot,” the qualities we share with our Creator that we cultivate each year during the Counting of the Omer.)

Print this on cardstock — hang the whole poster — cut it into cards and hang them around your sukkah — cut it into cards and have them on your table to spark discussion… the schach‘s the limit! Include these seven qualities among the ushpizin (holy guests) you invite into your sukkah this year.

We’re sharing this file as part of #MenschUp, a project aimed at promoting healthy (non-toxic) masculinity. As we build our sukkot, let’s build with Jewish values in mind. Download the file here on google drive:

Sukkot Downloads [Google drive]

There’s also a “Love Shack” downloadable flyer in that folder as well, and we’ll be adding more downloadable Sukkot resources to that google drive folder, so check back often!

Also, check out Steve Silbert’s Visual Torah artwork on RedBubble, including a poster for Sukkot (arising out of the book of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes) and a poster for Simchat Torah.

May our building be for the sake of heaven, and may the blessings of Sukkot flow into and through us all!


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Haggadah for Sukkot

Holding a seder at Pesach is a familiar tradition. But why not also hold a seder at Sukkot — surrounded by the beauty of the sukkah, exploring the holiday’s symbols and themes? This haggadah for Sukkot, co-created with Beth Kaufman Miller, is designed for use at home or in a synagogue setting. Using familiar tools from the Pesach seder (a seder plate, four ceremonial cups, four questions) this haggadah opens up the meaning of Sukkot in new ways. May our appreciation of nature in the sukkah this year inspire us to care for our planetary home, the fragile sukkah we all share. And may the temporary sukkot we build during this festival inspire us to make meaning in all of the structures we build in the new year to come. — Rabbi Shoshana Leis

Haggadah for Sukkot [pdf]

Red thread ritual for Yom Kippur

spool of red thread

This ritual seeks to connect us with atonement and make us aware of our interconnectedness. The only required element is red thread, cut into discrete lengths (a foot long, all the same length) handed out at the start of the ritual. The ritual begins with a short teaching about the red thread, followed by an activity involving the thread directly. This could be used as a prelude to the Musaf repetition of “Al Chet” (in communities that do Musaf) or as a component in the Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon. At the close, there’s an opportunity for people to talk with each other about what the ritual was like and how it impacted them. — Rabbi Evan J. Krame



  • Opening teaching

The red thread is Jewish folk talisman, said to ward off the evil eye. Red thread also appears in the story of Tamar (Genesis 38:28-30), in the story of Rahav (Joshua 2:18), and in association with the Mishkan / Temple rituals and clothing. Red thread can represent the boundary between the sacred and profane; it can also be a symbol of protection and promise. Proverbs (31:21) also mentions the virtuous woman who creates protection for her family with red wool. 

Mishnah (Yoma 4:2, 6:8) and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah also describe how red string was used in the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual. The high priest would place his hands on the scapegoat, confessing the sins of Israel and asking for atonement. He would tie a red string between the horns of the scapegoat, and another strip around the neck of the second goat to indicate where it should be slaughtered.


  • Red thread

Today we incorporate the red thread into a ritual of acknowledging and atoning for errant behavior.

[Hand out red threads.]

What are some modern sins that might not have been given expression in the classical Al Chet prayer? Let’s name a few of them: 

[Harvest responses from the room. Solicit interpersonal / communal answers — damage to the environment, poverty and homelessness, etc.]

Take your red thread and turn to the person next to you. Stand close to one another, each holding an end of the thread, with the thread hanging slack between you. As we acknowledge our failings, each person moves your body in the way I am about to describe. With each expression, take a very short step with your left foot, moving it slightly forward and in front of the right. The second step should bring your left foot fully in front of the right, which will make the red thread more taut. The third step will move the left foot past the right and the string will be stretched.

[Mention three sins]

Now let’s come up with three ways to repair the world and unravel the dynamic that created these broken places. As each possibility for repair is listed, move your foot back, so that we end the exercise in the same posture in which we began:

[With each repair, people will move back to their original places.]


  • (Optional) How did this feel?

Turn now to your partner and speak quietly for a few moments. How did this ritual feel for you? What role did the red thread play in connecting you? What meaning did you find in the position of your bodies relative to one another? Take turns speaking about your experience. We’ll bring everyone back together again with a niggun when it’s time to move on.




See also: this beautiful red thread sketchnote by Steve Silbert arising out of this ritual!

Using stones for Yizkor

This ritual seeks to connect the Yizkor prayers, recited four times a year, with an embodied experience of memory and connection. The only required element is a basket of stones — smooth river-washed stones are available at landscaping supply stores — which are handed out during the service. The central act is placing the stones together on a central location (often the amud or Torah reading table), in silence, while allowing music and memory to open our hearts.  — Rabbi Evan J. Krame



  • Opening

In our tradition, we bring not flowers but stones to a gravesite. That’s what Jacob did for Rachel when he created a matzevah (monument), as we read in Torah:

Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Gen. 35:22. )

וַיַּצֵּ֧ב יַעֲקֹ֛ב מַצֵּבָ֖ה עַל־קְבֻרָתָ֑הּ הִ֛וא מַצֶּ֥בֶת קְבֻֽרַת־רָחֵ֖ל עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃

Many of us no longer live near the cemeteries where our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents are buried. We may not have the opportunity to place a stone in remembrance of those who brought us into the world or nurtured us. 

Some of us have siblings or children who have preceded us in death, whose absence is hard to bear. Being far from those graves can be especially painful. 

And even when we live near the graves of those whom we’ve lost, we’re not at those graves now, today, as we recite these Yizkor prayers in memory. But we can still take a stone, and use it as a focus for our remembrance.


  • Stones

Take a stone now. Hold it, and think of the person or people you are remembering today.

[Invite people to go row by row to select a stone, or pass stones out row by row. While stones are being handed out, the following instruction may be offered:]

We’ll take silent time for the Yizkor memorial prayers.

After we hear the words of Psalm 23, come place the stone on the bimah, and return to your seats in silent dedication. 

[Volunteers direct the community in coming up, row by row, to place their stones while “Turn, Turn, Turn” is sung.]


  • Closing

Remembering and honoring those we have lost, we come together again as a community. Though each of us is remembering someone different, we’re connected in the shared experience of mourning and memory.

We move now into Mourner’s Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim…