Religious Leaders Encourage Fellowship in Easter, Passover Amid Coronavirus


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“They didn’t cover how to deal with a pandemic in school. We don’t know how to deal with this, but we do know how to care and we have two thousand plus years of dealing with adversity,” Rabbi Marci Bellows of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester.

Rabbi Rachel Safman, of the Conservative Beth El Congregation in New London, said in a Friday phone call that she’s heard both practical and religious concerns about the upcoming holidays from her congregation, but “the most central and obvious is that this is typically a time families and friends come together. And that is just not possible now.”

Safman said that the fears of her older congregation, more concerned for their health and contracting the virus, have led them to a stricter self-quarantine and deeper reflection.

“People are afraid,” she said. “They’re thinking of their mortality in different terms. It’s feeling more imminent. They’re thinking of their relationships with friends and family. They’re feeling isolated and the way they typically would address those needs, by being physically in the presence of those loved ones, is not accessible to them.”

Easter falls this year on April 12, and it’s preceded by Holy Week, which began with Palm Sunday on April 5. Passover begins the evening of April 8 and ends the evening of April 16. Later this month — April 23 — will also mark the beginning of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, and reflection for Muslims.

Church and synagogue leaders are making plans to broadcast services and offer support online. Several clergy members interviewed said they’re also encouraging one-on-one communication among their congregations — writing letters, calling neighbors and fellow parishioners.

“It isn’t about who can have the most tech savvy approach,” said Rev. Anthony Dinoto, vector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in East Lyme. “One of the things I’m doing — I’m writing a personal note to everybody in the parish, and I’m up now to the “E”s or “F”s. I have a big stack of them on my desk. I felt like a little kid on Valentine’s Day when I’d bring all those cards to school,” he laughed. “And I’ve encouraged people to do that — to reach out.”

Dinoto said he has also encouraged members of his congregation during Holy Week to reach out to five members in the parish directory that they don’t know.

“Easter will be a very different celebration for us this year, which doesn’t diminish the promise that Resurrection gives to us,” Dinoto said. “And in many ways, I believe this will be a positive thing for the church. We’ve been so isolated, even without being told to. We as a culture have become so isolated.”

Safman said that sheltering from the virus has given the holiday a deeper meaning.

“Seder, and Passover more broadly, have some of the most poignant, and I believe at some level, the most accessible themes of any observance in the entire calendrical year. It’s themes like freedom,” said Safman. “And I think we’ve never appreciated our freedoms more than even now when walking your dog or going to the food store feels like a daring or even transgressive act.”

A different celebration

“Passover is primarily a home observance,” said Bellows of Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek. “It’s not really a synagogue-celebrated holiday so it’s all the more sad, all the more a loss, that people can’t be celebrating it with their families at home and their children and grandchildren.”

Bellows said that many people in the Jewish community have been sharing lessons and introductions on how to conduct the Seder — a retelling of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Free copies of the Haggadah — the text that sets forth the order of the Seder — are also available online.

Safman said that she began pioneering live streaming services about five years ago, but the recent pandemic has meant that these videos that were once a supplement for worship are now a “mainstay of the congregation’s life, be it programs or services or other ways. This is the way that we live and function in this moment.”

She said she’s also been offering video lessons to her congregants on how to hold a Seder either in person or by video conference with relatives from afar . Her congregation has been organizing deliveries of the appropriate food to members who can’t safely go out shopping.

Bellows said that the second evening of Passover for her congregation would typically entail a large community Seder that was open to the entire congregation and to non-Jews who were interested in learning about it. Instead, this year the entire congregation will be welcomed into a video conference Seder.

“We’ll be at our own homes with our families talking people through a Seder and they may be doing their own seder at their homes, or they may be hanging out on the couch,” Bellows said. “But they at least will be in a community so they’re not alone.”

At Old Lyme’s Roman Catholic Christ the King Church, the Palm Sunday service was shared by video on the church’s website. Director of music ministries William Thompson arranged and pre-recorded a choir performance by mixing individual taped performances submitted by members of the choir.

“It’s hard being separated and not in the same building,” said Rev. Joseph Ashe of Christ the King, “but right away some people with great tech skills have been able to help us have a Mass every day that people can connect into and then when the Mass is over they still have time to chat and see each other’s faces on the program, to talk and encourage one another.”

Ashe and Rev. Dinoto of St. John’s said that this year they left the blessed palms in open areas of the church and designated spaces outside for individuals to bring home themselves.

Churches around the area are broadcasting or streaming portions of their services in the days before Easter. For Ashe and Dinoto both, they said that one of the most dramatic moments of the services is the vigil held Saturday, which begins in darkness before the church. 

As Dinoto described the vigil at St. John’s, “The service begins with the church in total darkness and at the back of the church — the narthex — the priest lights a new fire that symbolizes the new light of Christ coming into the world.”

Dinoto said that he and other members of his congregation were looking for ways to broadcast parts of the service, but parts of the awe and majesty of the services are challenging or impossible to replicate in a video.

Ashe said similarly that his church will be broadcasting their vigil, Easter mass, and other services online.

“The only sad thing is that people will only get a glimpse this year rather than the whole impact,” Ashe said. “But what’s important is the bond that we all have as members.”

Fellowship in a time of social distancing

Rev. Amy Hollis, a Baptist pastor and executive director of Shoreline Soup Kitchens in Old Saybrook, said that the multiple congregations who distribute the pantry’s food to the needy have kept up that work. 

She said the pantry’s mission is twofold — food and fellowship — but fellowship has been harder to offer in recent weeks. Typically they would have a large communal meal around Easter, but that’s also been canceled this year while most of the food delivery services have been adapted to curbside pickup and delivery.

“Those meals are about fellowshipping with a group,” Hollis said. “A lot of times the holidays bring out isolation — just like we’re going through right now — we want to be able to offer people opportunities to get out of isolation, but that’s just not something we’re able to do right.”

Much like clergy around the area, she said she’s been encouraging volunteers and the groups she serves to reach out to neighbors, those in need, and other community members.

“However long this journey takes in whatever period of time this takes, we will be the people of faith that we have been called to be and be good neighbors to one another walking together,” Hollis said.

Bellows said that people have planned their major holidays for the spring because it represents a time of renewal that seems extra relevant now.

“All of our religions have these springtime holidays that remind us of life and rebirth,” she said. “And even as we still have these reminders of darkness, we’re shedding the darkness, and there is rebirth and the opening of buds, and that will come, we just have to maintain that hope… that’s what I believe God always wants from us. To remember that we are one community and God is one and He wants us to look at ourselves and remember that we are one community.”