How Houses of Worship Are Handling Holy Days Amid the Pandemic

What will local celebrations of Easter, Passover and Ramadan look like this year?

For Christians, Jews and Muslims, the spring holidays of Easter, Passover and Ramadan are among the most emotionally resonant events on the religious calendar. But as COVID-19 continues to change the way we live and interact with one another, houses of worship are facing an unprecedented quandary: how to deal with the coming holy days—typically occasions for coming together in a spirit of devotion, reflection and joy—during a time of social distancing.

Over the past several weeks, most of the state’s churches, synagogues and mosques have gone from modifying their rituals in order to observe social distancing to shuttering houses of worship altogether in accordance with the governor’s directive limiting public gatherings to 50 people or fewer. Where services are being conducted, they’re either televised or, more commonly, live-streamed or pre-recorded and posted online, without a congregation and with a minimal number of celebrants.

Given growing restrictions on travel and social gatherings, it appears that most Easter and Passover observances—and probably those for Ramadan as well, which begins later in the month (most likely on April 23—the date is determined by the sighting of the crescent moon)—will be virtual this year. (To find a service, check with the websites or Facebook pages of individual houses of worship. Diocesan services will likely be live-streamed as well.)

Courtesy of Unsplash

Holy Week: Saturday, April 5–Saturday, April 11
Easter: Sunday, April 12
Orthodox Easter: Sunday, April 19

In his March 20 message to the faithful, Bishop David M. O’Connell of the Catholic Diocese of Trenton noted that public celebrations of Holy Week and Easter would be “quite different this year.” Catholics, he said, should continue to celebrate the mysteries of their faith, “even though in a different way.”

For the state’s Christian churchgoers who can no longer go to church in the traditional sense, that way will almost certainly involve technology. Each day throughout Holy Week, for instance, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark will air a service from one of the churches in the diocese, while Bishop Carlye J. Hughes will perform the Easter service.

Like so many houses of worship in the state, Hamburg Baptist Church has taken services online over the last several weeks, and the Easter service will follow suit—though, says Dick Sharber, the church’s pastor, “We’ll be trying to make it extra good and hopeful, with words and music.” Cyber services are new to the church, so Sharber is justifiably pleased at “being able to pull off anything technological and have it go very well”—and, he adds, “people are saying it hits the spot, as well as it can.”

Still, many worshippers are feeling something akin to grief at the prospect of celebrating Holy Week in front of a laptop, rather than in the comforting company of fellow congregants. For Luisa Frey of Nutley, attending Lenten, Holy Week and Easter services has always been an affirmation of not just her faith but her sense of joy and renewal. She admits that, even though she’ll be “attending” an online Easter service, she’s saddened by the cancellation of group worship. “We’re all needing that message of life and hope,” she says, “and for me, the flowers and music and people around me make it feel more real somehow.”

Nevertheless, many congregants are feeling buoyed by the continued connection that technology offers. Sandy Dokachev, office manager at Bloomfield’s Park United Methodist Church, was amazed at the ways in which worshipers are connecting personally with the church online, like posting messages of hope on the church’s Facebook page, as well as prayer requests in real-time during the service. In fact, the church intends to continue with live-streaming and other technologies after the pandemic has passed.

Photo via Shutterstock

Passover: Wednesday, April 8–Thursday, April 16

The notion that Passover is a holiday commemorating protection from plagues isn’t lost on many Jewish worshippers this year, and neither is the fact that coming together—to eat, reflect, give thanks, and remember—is at the heart of the celebration. In fact, the Passover Seder isn’t just a traditional meal; it’s the service itself.

This year, Jewish leaders are struggling to find meaning, for themselves and their congregations, in Seders that don’t involve the sharing of either communal space or a communal meal. For the second night of Passover, Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Mahwah, plans to lead a Seder via the conferencing platform Zoom.

“I’ll share the Haggadah”—the retelling of the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt that also serves as a guide through the rituals that comprise the Seder—”on my screen with everybody, and they will be at my table and we will have a community seder as much as we can,” she says.

Rabbi David Amar, who leads the Conservative congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell, will present what he calls “a model Seder” online on the evening of Wednesday, April 8. “I’m going to set a plate and offer some interpretation of what the Seder represents,” he says. “But I’m not going to do the food part, because there’s no point to that.”

In March, as a response to calls for social distancing, a growing number of synagogues moved their services online. This isn’t a problem for adherents of Reform Judaism, the most liberal branch of the religion, but for Conservative and Orthodox Jews, technology is banned on both Shabbat (the Sabbath) and religious holidays. While some Conservative and Orthodox leaders have dealt with the ban by cancelling services altogether, others may allow cyber services in accordance with the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, the idea that the protection of human life should override all other religious laws.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Ramadan: Expected Thursday, April 23–Saturday, May 23

In mid-March, many mosques and Islamic centers canceled Friday prayer services, but some stayed open for daily prayers.  That’s since changed, with the majority of mosques closing in order to adhere to social-distancing rules.

As with Jewish and Christian congregations, many mosques echoed the sentiments of Paterson’s Islamic Center of Passaic County—the largest mosque in the county—that “preserving life and health is one of the aims of our religion.”

Given that Ramadan is some three weeks away, the decision to close for the holiday, or move to online worship, is still up in the air for many Muslim leaders, depending on the future trajectory of the pandemic. Imam Said Quereshi of Teaneck’s Dar-ul-Islah, the largest mosque in Bergen County, says that leaders in the mosque haven’t yet made a decision, which should be forthcoming later in April—a position shared by the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

Adjusting to cyber services

Virtual worship isn’t likely to replace the real thing anytime soon, not only because it lacks the emotional and spiritual immediacy but also because it presents the potential problems that seem to go hand in hand with technology.

Rabbi Schwartzman says that Beth Havarim Shir Shalom won’t be posting a link on its website to its online Seder because of “Zoom bombing”—a trend that’s popped up during the last few weeks of the pandemic in which hackers crash Zoom meetings and other get-togethers.

Last Sunday, an online service streaming live from the Northfield Baptist Church was interrupted when Zoom lost its audio and a disembodied voice urged worshippers “to jump over to YouTube.” This may be a part of what Schwartzman is referring to when she notes that, at her community Seder, worshippers will be “thinking about freedom in a new way, and certainly thinking about plagues in a new way as well.”

Still, there’s something to be said for the wonders of technology and its ability to build communities, not just of gamers or hobbyists, but also of worshippers seeking a sense of connection and transcendence.

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