The startup Seder is on Zoom

Here’s how two Israelis of Russian origin refused to let coronavirus take Passover

Last year, Pavel Kats, the CEO of Jewish Heritage Network (JHN), an international collection of portals to Jewish cultural institutions, created a Seder-sharing platform, called Yahad, on which families could use the same Haggadah. 

On the eve of Passover this year, he and his colleague, Alexander Raginsky, have made Yahad, which means “together” in Hebrew, easier to find and use by putting it on Zoom’s marketplace. Its split-screen function enables users both to look at the text and interact with other participants.

“Zoom has become our way of life,” Kats told eJewishPhilanthropy. “It was important to get on this platform, to use something that people know and like, so we could grow.”

Kats and Raginsky are both Israelis who started their careers in the tech sector there. They both moved to Amsterdam, where they  met. Kats had been interested in the intersection of culture and technology, and together they created JHN and incorporated it in Amsterdam as a charity in 2017.  

Through JHN, visitors can access Jewish culture across time and space, such as historical photographs of Francophone schools in North Africa to German-language newspaper clippings concerning the Rothschild family from 1886 to 1928. They can then interact with those cultural artifacts through chatbots and specialized search and recommendation mechanisms. 

The Network is a partner of Europeana, the digital culture initiative of the European Commission, and also receives funding from the Commission, Kats said. JHN worked on digital aspects of ANU: The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, formerly named Beit Hatfutsot and recently renovated and reopened.

Kats and Raginsky also developed another revenue stream by doing paid projects, such as digital management for cultural institutions.

The Fooksman Family Foundation, which funds Yahad, is JHN’s first American supporter, although JHN works with American organizations such as the Leo Baeck Institute and YIVO, featuring their collections on its site. Eugene Fooksman, a Russian-born software engineer, founded the foundation in 2018, according to its website.

Yahad on Zoom offers the option of assigning a Seder leader and the ability by individuals to move forward and backward in any given Haggadah and also between a menu of almost 50 of them in various languages, including English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Spanish and French.

Synagogues can also use the platform to invite up to 1,000 participants.

As pandemic lockdowns and quarantines spread last year, Kats felt a longing to somehow join his family — in London and in Israel — for a Seder, because it was  the single Jewish holiday that his secular Soviet-Jewish family gathered for every year. The family socialized while his grandfather would quietly recite the service. Raginsky has a similar background.

“I grew up in a normal Soviet family that was devoid of Jewish experience, except for the special cookies I ate on Passover,” Raginsky said.