The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions around it can scuttle plans for celebrations, but they can’t stop holidays from coming. Passover and Easter, for example, are just around the corner.
In the name of tradition, clergy and faithful congregants in Jewish communities and Christian churches alike are trying new ways of electronic worship, paving the way toward an online Passover seder, continued prayer and rituals throughout Holy Week and an Easter unlike any experienced in the 21st century.
“Judaism stresses the value of congregation, of gathering,” said Rabbi Matt Cohen of Galveston’s Temple B’nai Israel, 3008 Ave. O. “Our survival has been dependent on gathering together.
“Our prayer service is written in the second-person plural,” he said. “If you have fewer than 10 people, there are some prayers you can’t say.”
But Cohen’s congregation is staying home, and the rabbi has put himself in quarantine because he traveled in the past month.
On Friday, Cohen attempted his first shabbat service via Zoom, an online conferencing app, and Facebook. The result was a well-attended gathering in a room on the internet, a grid of faces, each in his or her own separate physical location, reciting prayers, singing and listening to a message of hope.
By Saturday, more than 300 people had used the service on the temple’s Facebook page.
The Rev. Susan Kennard, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church, 2216 Ball Ave. in Galveston, also has been posting services live on Facebook and noticed that even healing services that are normally small, with three to five people in attendance, are drawing more than 100 viewers online.
“We’re doing morning and evening prayer on Facebook, and we post our service live with music and a sermon,” Kennard said. On Easter, a recording of the service will be added to the church’s website for those who can’t access Facebook.
“As Episcopalians, every time we gather we share communion, but not now,” Kennard said. “I don’t record myself taking communion, we’re not doing private communion or gathering for communion. We’re returning to our Protestant roots for now.”
Using technology, both Cohen and Kennard are re-creating two of the most celebrated events in their respective faiths’ calendars — Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from 400 years of slavery as recounted in the Old Testament, kicked off with a communal seder dinner; and Easter, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb.
Deliverance from bondage and deliverance from sin, as well as hope for humanity characterize both traditions, melded inextricably by what’s referred to as the last supper of Christ and his disciples, a Passover observance before he was crucified.
Cohen will lead an online seder from his dining room, walking his congregants through a litany of rituals at table and beyond. Kennard and her staff are planning a celebratory Easter service from inside the church’s historic building complete with music from the pipe organ, prayers, singing and no more than 10 worshipers.
“All over the world at various times, we haven’t gotten to have the fabulous Trinity kind of Galveston service with every flower known to man and trumpets heralding the resurrection and festive dresses, but we can still proclaim the good news,” Kennard said.
From a faith perspective, this unique time of physical separation to prevent spread of the coronavirus is an opportunity to learn anew, Cohen said.
“While we’re virtually separate from one another, we’re still deeply connected,” he said. “This is about something bigger than ourselves, and it speaks volumes to the importance of community, learning that in isolation we still have each other, we still have our faith community.
“If we are going to make a blessing out of this difficult curse, it will be that it brings us together, discovering how we are going to carry one another through this.”