The Seder meal, marking Passover, is both ancient and ritual-laden. Tonight, Jewish families gather around a table, lit with candles, sparkling with silver. Matzo, or unleavened bread, is eaten. Wine is drunk. The familiar four questions are asked.
And so it's been for thousands of years.
But, sometimes, situations don't allow for that intimacy. Sometimes a son isn't at the table because he's serving in the military. Sometimes a daughter isn't around because she's moved to North Carolina.
Then, what happens?
Although nothing replaces being elbow-to-elbow around the table -- there are creative ways to keep faith and family connections alive.
For one, there's the Internet, where video cams allow for instant communication. And, there are solo Seder kits, which have been assembled and sent to Jewish servicemen and women throughout the world, following a practice that began in World War II, according to the Jewish Welfare Board, which has sent them to personnel stationed in the Middle East, Germany, Kosovo, and around the world.
The idea is being supported locally by donations to buy kits, which cost $14 each.
"We've been distributing information about them through our e-mail list and at worship services," said Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Temple Beth Zion. "The response has been very, very positive. In fact, any number of people have told me that they are forwarding the information to relatives and friends, who are also donating to the cause."
The solo Seder kits serve a number of functions, said Rosenfeld. "Seder is the single most observed holiday in the Jewish world in some way, shape or form," he said. "It's been the prime family holiday. So, we have at least some way of helping so that soldiers around the world feel a connection to Jewishness, to Passover and to families back home."
Included in the kit is a Haggadah (a book containing the Seder ritual), matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, matzo, macaroons, tuna fish and a can of chicken soup, said Miriam Rinn, communications manager of the Jewish Chaplains Council (JCC), which is based in Manhattan.
Is the soup as good as mom's?
"I'm not going to testify to that," said Rinn. "I guess it depends on how good a cook she is."
This year, for the first time, the kits also include a kippah (a skull cap) and an international phone card, she said.
"It's a very sweet story about the phone cards," said Rinn. A young girl named Marisa realized that her bat mitzvah project would coincide with Passover, she said. Recognizing how much she enjoyed talking on the phone, Marisa decided to help servicemen and women call their friends and families, no matter where they were stationed. She set about soliciting funds from her guests and friends, sending letters to everyone she could think of.
"We thought it was such a wonderful idea that we decided no matter how much she raised, we made sure each kit got a card," said Rinn.
Besides that, the kits include colorful drawings created by students at the Children's Center at Purchase College. The project was inspired by a teacher's discussion of ways in which they could be kind to people who might be lonely or worried.
Rinn said that about 600 Seder kits were packed, weeks ago, at the JCC's 26th Street headquarters and shipped to overseas installations and ships at sea so they'd arrive in time for the Passover meal.
"These are really designed for those who can't get to a service," said Rinn, adding that the Defense Department typically supplies Kosher food to those who request it.
"Wherever there's a chaplain, he or she will do their best to conduct a traditional Seder," she said.
Currently, there are about 30 active duty Jewish chaplains, Rinn said. Earlier, eight chaplains, including two women, from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism left for the Middle East and Afghanistan to conduct Seders and to offer spiritual support to Jewish military personnel. In Baghdad, a lay leader in the U.S. Embassy will conduct a Seder for about 20 people who are employees of the State Department and civilians working there. In Spain and Germany, lay leaders will also conduct seders to accommodate Jewish servicemen and women.
"I think the most important thing is just to know that someone is thinking of you," said Rinn. "Holiday times are difficult to be away from friends, family, community.
As for the contents of the kit: "Of course, it's not a gourmet feast," she said. "It's a reminder that people are thinking about you."
Stay connected at Seder
For families separated by distance, the Internet can come into play as a way to connect during the Seder meal, said Christian Barbato of Comcast High-Speed Internet.
Someone has to be savvy with technology - ask the nearest 10-year-old - to make this happen. Here's how it works. The senders use a video cam to record messages from everyone sitting around the table and then they send it off, via e-mail.
"This is the first time we're pitching it for the Seder meal," said Barbato. "Anyone who has an e-mail can receive it. There is no download required."
On the other end, recipients need Windows media players and speakers: "But then, you just sign on, and up pops the video mail," he said.
"People love to get the face-to-face time," said Barbato.
Some companies offer instant video messaging so that people can communicate in "real time."
Picture this: A family in Western New York can join relatives in Myrtle Beach via their computer screens. Although participants can't clink glasses, they can sing "Dayenu" simultaneously and hear the youngest answer the question: "Why is this night different from all others?"
And participants can simultaneously offer each other the traditional wish: "Next year, in Jerusalem."
All possible, no matter how far apart they are geographically.