For many people of faith, upcoming religious holidays — Passover, Easter, Ramadan — are traditionally a time of gathering. But under stringent social distancing measures enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, life in the Northwest has been marked by retraction and isolation.

But even as holidays are reimagined — sometimes drastically — and services go remote, leaving houses of worship empty, local faith leaders say that interest in religious services has gone up, and congregants have found new ways to receive and share practical support and relief through their spiritual communities — maintaining a sense of connection in an otherwise dark time.

Holidays disrupted

The loss of in-person worship has come at a cost: Holidays have been disrupted or transformed, and some of the most important rituals of congregants’ lives will have to be radically altered or delayed, faith leaders said.

Hyder Ali, president of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), based in Redmond, said it was unlikely MAPS would be able to provide full services for Ramadan, which begins April 23 this year, and is typically when the mosque brings in almost 50% of its donations — “a significant amount of our operational expenses.” He said he did not anticipate in-person services reconvening in time for Ramadan, but that MAPS would provide virtual engagements on the holiday.

He also said MAPS would be assisting the community during this time in other ways, “doubling down to do what we can to serve the community” because “churches and mosques serve as a first line of defense” for people facing fallout from the outbreak.

Hyder Ali, president of Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), prepares to give an update to the MAPS community from his home, following a virtual sermon provided by guest Imam Abdul Malik. (Jannah Ali)
Hyder Ali, president of Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), prepares to give an update to the MAPS community from his home, following a virtual sermon provided by guest Imam Abdul Malik. (Jannah Ali)

Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of North Seattle’s Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation, said she would bring relatives on the East Coast into her home for Passover (which starts April 8) using Zoom, and that others were also turning to this option. “They’ll do part of the Seder together somehow,” she said. She also said Temple Beth Am would be holding Passover services over Zoom.

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Orthodox Jews, who disconnect from technology on the Sabbath and certain holidays, don’t have this option, said Beth Balkany, who is part of a volunteer effort to provide mutual aid within Seward Park’s Orthodox Jewish community. Balkany said she planned to follow guidance from the Seattle Va’ad, which functions as a board of Orthodox rabbis, that Seders include immediate family only.

She usually hosts a much larger group. “Our table usually seats 18,” she said. Her daughter had asked how the family would sit at such a large table, and Balkany explained that they could take a leaf out. Her daughter was surprised. “‘You can make our table smaller?’” Balkany recalled her saying. “She’s 16. She’s never seen our table small.”

This is Beth Balkany’s Passover Seder table from last year. This year, she’s had to make her table smaller since a larger gathering is not possible during coronavirus restrictions. (Beth Balkany)
This is Beth Balkany’s Passover Seder table from last year. This year, she’s had to make her table smaller since a larger gathering is not possible during coronavirus restrictions. (Beth Balkany)

Holy Week (which starts April 5) and Easter Sunday (April 12) have also been complicated by the virus. The Archdiocese of Seattle suspended public Masses last month; St. James Cathedral will livestream all Holy Week services. “It’s going to be a ghost of its former self,” said the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan, pastor at St. James. But he said he was looking forward to a time in the future when the congregation would again be able to celebrate together: “We’re really good at putting on celebrations.” 

At Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle, the Rev. Dr. Kelle J. Brown expressed similar hopes. Easter, normally a day of high church attendance, will be different this year, she said. Plymouth will continue its livestreamed services on the holiday, but the real celebration will happen later. “Whenever we’re together in person again, it’s gonna be Easter,” she said, with “the organ on full blast,” music and “this real celebration.” “For us it’s not about the date,” she said. “It’s truly about what it represents … new life, renewal, transformation, resurrection.”

It also gives congregants something to look forward to. “You can get through the darkness in a different way if you have something to hold onto,” she said.

Services are online, and participation is up

In the meantime, all over the region, religious services carry on thanks to technology. Plymouth Church has had no in-person worship for several weeks, Brown said, but Sunday services have continued online, and the church has found creative ways to foster togetherness virtually. She said the church continued to hold activities like Bible study remotely, and the congregation has even held a communal meal-and-movie night — congregants ate their own meals while video chatting, and used Netflix Party, the long-distance, communal movie-viewing browser extension, to watch “The Two Popes.” 

The Rev. Dr. Kelle J. Brown of Plymouth Church records her sermon for Sunday services. The church has not held in-person services for several weeks now. (The Rev. Dr. Kelle J. Brown)
The Rev. Dr. Kelle J. Brown of Plymouth Church records her sermon for Sunday services. The church has not held in-person services for several weeks now. (The Rev. Dr. Kelle J. Brown)

Brown called the outbreak “the saddest thing that I can imagine” but said she also saw “a real opportunity for us to be community again. People have slowed down and so more people are available and accessible to do things together, and it’s really been a gift in terms of building community.”

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Brown said the shift to virtual services and community events had also been a chance for congregants who’ve moved away or left the church to return. “We’re seeing them,” she said. “They’re coming back to us.”

MAPS suspended daily congregational prayers starting March 23, with Friday services going online starting March 27, supplemented by a series of online religious programs. MAPS’ educational programming has also made the transition to online platforms.

Some local faith leaders say they’ve seen an increase in interest since services moved online. At Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the largest Reform Jewish congregation in the Pacific Northwest, with locations in Seattle and Bellevue, Rabbi Daniel Weiner said participation in online services has been comparable to the surge in physical attendance that typically occurs during the High Holidays. 

Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai prepares a service for streaming. (Rabbi Daniel Weiner)
Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai prepares a service for streaming. (Rabbi Daniel Weiner)

At Temple Beth Am, Zlotnick said she’s also seen an increase in participation online. She experienced something similar during her time as a rabbi in New York during 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis. “I think it’s at these times people seek out the connection they feel to their faith or the connection they feel to other people or … a connection to God,” she said. 

She saw it as “a spiritual hunger for connection and for bringing our questions and our grief and our uncertainty,” and “an opportunity to connect because that’s what we’re here for.”

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“Being Jews, we have a long history of people who figure out a way to feel connected … even though they’re enduring very difficult trials,” she said. “We’re just standing on the shoulders of our ancestors.”

But the loss of ritual is also acutely felt. At St. James Cathedral, Ryan, who is in his late 70s, said he could no longer enter hospitals to anoint the sick, which was “kind of a kick in the gut.” There had been other significant changes at St. James earlier on — no more receiving Holy Communion on the tongue or from a common cup, which Ryan said had been difficult for some. He acknowledged that it was “a deep sadness” to not be able to worship together, but that “the common good here has to be what we strive for.” 

“People want to do something”

Most of the faith leaders made one thing clear: They’d been on phone calls or in Zoom meetings nonstop. Their work had changed, but it hadn’t slowed. And while their congregants sought counsel and community virtually, they also wanted to help.

MAPS has created a COVID-19 task force, and set up an intake form for community members seeking assistance. The group had already processed requests from community members, providing financial and food assistance in the program’s first week and conducting wellness checks on 30 seniors by phone.

Wellness checks on seniors were on Zlotnick’s mind, too. She said that she and other rabbis have been calling congregants 80 and older, and that volunteers were calling people who are 65 and over, or otherwise at risk. Efforts had also been made to connect those who are healthy to help those who are ill or who can’t leave home. “And people have been eager to get that up and running because they’re so eager to help each other out,” she said.

Temple Beth Am congregant Erika Michaels took this photograph of her laptop, which she used to stream services directly from her Shabbat table in Edmonds. Rabbis Ruth Zlotnick, Dana Benson and Jason Levine and musician Chava Mirel are shown in a video taken at the synagogue before Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order went into effect. (Erika Michael)
Temple Beth Am congregant Erika Michaels took this photograph of her laptop, which she used to stream services directly from her Shabbat table in Edmonds. Rabbis Ruth Zlotnick, Dana Benson and Jason Levine and musician Chava Mirel are shown in a video taken at the synagogue before Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order went into effect. (Erika Michael)

In Seward Park, Balkany took part in a similar effort, helping to coordinate mutual support with a volunteer task force representing five Orthodox Jewish synagogues that serve a community of between 500 and 600 families, Balkany estimates. They held their first planning meeting March 18.

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She said the group started by calling through the synagogues’ directories. The plan had initially been to focus on high-risk members of the community, but the volunteer group “made a decision that every single person needs a call,” said Balkany. They also set up a system to match community members in need with community members who can help with practical support like picking up and delivering groceries and medication. (To keep people safe, the group set clear instructions, informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for pickups and drop-offs. The groceries get left outside, said Balkany.)

“People want to do something,” said Balkany, who also likened the atmosphere to what New York was like after 9/11: “You see that sense of camaraderie.”

She said that sense of support looked different in better times, when the community might bring meals to someone who’s had a new baby. “It’s how people show love,” she said. “These same women who would love to be baking and cooking for everyone … we’re trying to organize them in positive ways.”

Balkany said people across the country had reached out to her for advice on setting up their own community responses, and that she was happy to share the policies and protocols she’d helped devise. “The internet makes resource-sharing so easy, and it’s just really helpful and you don’t have to wait for someone else … you can just do it,” she said.

In the meantime, Plymouth Church’s Brown said it was important to keep in mind a time when this crisis has passed. She paraphrased Psalm 30: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Or, as Brown put it: “Trouble never lasts always.”