Holy month isn’t the same when separated

Social distancing forces Christians, Jews, and Muslims to adjust traditionally communal holiday customs.

Passover, Easter, and Ramadan holidays all overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic this month, which has upended traditions of large and long gatherings.

So Kalamazoo’s Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities pursued creative ways to mark the holidays in order to maintain life-saving social distancing and adhere to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “stay-at-home” Executive Orders.

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“It’s so hard for the Muslim community to spend Ramadan in the house,” said Hassan Alsaeed, a board member of the West Michigan Islamic Center. Ramadan, a month of prayer, reflection, and daytime fasting, began late last week. “Usually during Ramadan we share food each night.”

The eight days of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish slaves’ escape from biblical Egypt, began April 8 with the first of two nights of ceremonial dinners called a “Seder.”

“Passover is very much a home-based holiday, but it’s common to gather with multiple people,” said Rabbi Simone Schicker of Temple B’nai Israel.

The Rev. Rachel Laughlin, pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, usually gives an Easter Sunday sermon to hundreds of people sitting in her pews.

“It’s very different to talk to a camera in my guest bedroom” as she did April 12, Laughlin said. “As a leader, I miss everybody.”

Online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom fill some of the gap, providing a sense of connection that is an important part of those holidays.

For Nathan Dannison, senior pastor at First Congregational Church, the first attempt at online services a month ago was a self-described “kind of train wreck.” It took the help of staff and volunteers to package its traditional large choir and music-intensive service into the digital delivery, such as the successful Easter celebration on the church’s YouTube channel.

That doesn’t work for everyone.

While virtual Passover celebrations allowed members of Schicker’s congregation to have Seders together even if physically separated, using such technology on holy days isn’t allowed for more observant Jewish sects. Alsaeed said the Islamic Center was able to continue religious lectures and scripture recitations, however, “we can’t do prayer online.”

First Congregational Church has many members who are from the homeless community, who would normally access the internet from the library, which is closed by order of the governor, requiring the church’s web services to be optimized for cell phones.

“The church is a not a building, it’s a group of people,” Dannison said. “What’s most important is how we connect.”

And so, the messages of religious holidays resonate in new ways during this pandemic.

“The story of Exodus is very much connected to plagues. There was a lot of commentary about being redeemed and freed from plague, which I shared with my community,” Schicker reflects.

The uncertainty of the pandemic also gave Easter celebrations a different feeling. “We know Jesus is risen, but we feel so stuck. We don’t know when we’ll be back to ‘normal’ or what it will look like,” Laughlin said.

Imane Wydick is stuck at home, recovering from COVID-19 alone. No spending time with parents or siblings.

“Family is the most crucial part of the holiday and it’s sad knowing I won’t get to enjoy the big feasts,” Wydick said. “I also won’t be able to go to the mosque along with millions of other people to pray. It will be hard to even feel the holiday here.”

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