If there is any silver lining to the novel coronavirus pandemic, perhaps it is that we have all been momentarily reminded of our intrinsic commonality: we are all humans occupying the same planet at the same time. And while this means that none of us is immune to being infected, it does mean that all of us, from every corner of the globe, are fighting it together.
Alongside medical professionals and public health officials stand religious leaders who, too, are on the front lines shouldering the fallout from this pandemic. But in this unorthodox time of “social distancing,” many religious institutions across Scarsdale have had to rethink their usual programming and figure out how to maintain deep but nonphysical connections with their congregants.
“We are physically apart, but we feel connected,” wrote Rabbi Adam Baldachin in a Shabbat message to congregants on March 13. At Shaarei Tikvah, congregants must now attend services, meetings, classes and special programs via Zoom, an online conferencing platform.
In addition to its usual programming, Shaarei Tikvah added several offerings to help congregants cope with the pandemic and stay connected to one another. “Dust off your best joke book (or your memory), pour your favorite drink of choice, and join your ST friends for 30-45 minutes of real laughs and a little conversation at this virtual joke night,” read one event description. Another virtual offering led congregants in a meditation by way of crystal alchemy sound bowls that help “attune and realign mind, body and spirit.”
By engaging remotely, “we are momentarily bringing down our protective walls to be with one another,” wrote Baldachin in an email to congregants on Shushan Purim, a holidayobserved this year on March 10. “[This] helps us build strength when we are feeling weak.”
Arthur Glauberman, a Shaarei Tikvah member and its former president, said he and his wife Judy Spanier have participated in the “extraordinary” virtual synagogue experiences and the “delightful” Purim service with about 50 others, including family and friends as far away as Florida and Israel.
“These experiences were heartbreaking and heartwarming and I’m grateful to my synagogue for helping me and Judy as well as all the members of our community to stay connected while the doors of Shaarei Tikvah remain shuttered,” Glauberman said.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Hough Rogers, senior minister of Scarsdale Congregational Church (SCC), echoed Baldachin’s thoughts. “This [pandemic] has in a lot of ways laid bare some of the walls that we put up to protect ourselves emotionally and spiritually … people are being more vulnerable with me even if they can’t see me.”
Like most religious institutions in the area, SCC cancelled or postponed nearly all in-person gatherings, including baptisms and confirmations, and ceased any other gatherings larger than 10. Confirmation classes are currently being held online, and if someone should pass away and require a burial, the ceremony would be only for the immediate family and one clergy member, with no live music, said Rogers.
After watching a livestreamed program last week, SCC congregant Lee Berke said the online version had many of the same elements that comprise a regular church service, while creating a “virtual community.”
“You’re being told to socially distance yourself, and for good reason, and yet you need community,” Lee said. “And, you know, [this online outreach] came at a time when I think everybody really needed it most.”
In terms of managing pastoral duties, Rogers said she has made herself very available to parishioners, while also coordinating with a group of volunteers that she refers to as her “Pastoral Support Team.” Together, they decided “it’s prudent to be reaching out to the more vulnerable in our population twice a week, through phone calls,” Rogers said, adding “more and more people keep signing up for that opportunity because they know it’s important for older people not to feel so isolated.” Additionally, those who may not have the technological capability to receive emails or watch video worship services can request snail mail copies of Rogers’ sermons.
St. James the Less Episcopal Church has also stepped up their elderly population outreach efforts in the last few weeks. Specifically, they have a group called The Samaritans, many of whom are elderly themselves, who are checking up on other elderly members of the congregation.
“I always say this church is a great place to be an old person,” joked Mother Astrid Storm, the church rector. “You’re really well taken care of all year round, but now everyone’s … stepped up their communication.”
On March 15, St. James the Less conducted its first-ever livestream service in the history of the 171-year-old church. The service currently has more than 200 views on YouTube. “This will likely be the new norm for a while,” said St. James office manager Dakota Martin.
The elderly population is most at risk, according to news reports, but it is not the only group being seriously impacted by the pandemic.
“I have people who are dealing with cancer. I have people who are mourning. I have people who are job insecure. I have all sorts of things,” said Rogers. “I feel like a lot of needs that have been here before this have been pushed aside, but I refuse to let go of the people who still are in need, regardless of whether their need is as emergent as somebody who might have the virus or not.”
The Rev. Gordon Naumann of Trinity Lutheran Church expressed a similar sentiment. “When we have stockpiled our groceries and we’re OK and for us it’s just a holiday, what about the poor? What about the needy, those who are desperate? When they come to our doors, and they need something, do we give it to them? We should … This is the Christian spirit.”
Like other religious institutions, Trinity Lutheran Church canceled all in-person gatherings and is now refocusing its efforts on reaching worshipers remotely. Luckily, Naumann has been posting his sermons on YouTube for more than a year so he feels fairly comfortable with the digital space. However, moving some of the youth programming online has proved challenging, he said, and that continues to be a work in progress.
“We had a table tennis club every Saturday at 12 [p.m.],” said Naumann. “We can’t video conference a table tennis session, so that’s hugely disappointing.”
Recently, Naumann started posting “meditate with me” videos to his channel and, ironically, by using that platform he is now engaging congregants more frequently than he normally would in person. In a recent devotional video, Naumann reminded viewers that, “despite the anxiety around us, and the angst, God is with us.” Furthermore, he stressed in an interview with the Inquirer that “we are to have great anticipation throughout this whole period. Our anticipation for the reception of Christ’s means of grace for us is to be there, constantly until the moment we are, with great joy, able to come together and receive God’s word and sacrament again.”
At Congregation Kol Ami, clergy have been working diligently to provide spiritual guidance to congregants “in every possible combination possible — virtually,” said Rabbi Shira Milgrom. The synagogue’s campus is closed for schools, classes and meetings until at least March 30, according to its website.
Every day, one of Kol Ami’s staff or clergy members convenes a Zoom call where congregants can talk to one another about various texts, prayers and about what’s going on in their lives. “It’s a chance to connect to each other and a chance to connect to our traditions for our spiritual sustenance,” said Milgrom. In addition to these daily e-meetings, Kol Ami conducts remote religious school classes, guided meditation & mindfulness sessions, and is planning to stream interactive Passover Seders for young families next month. All lifecycle events, such as bar and bat mitzvahs and baby namings, are postponed for the next two months.
“I think it will be important for all of us to think, when this is over, what we have learned from this experience,” said Milgrom. “I imagine that in all this uncertainty and all this worry, that there are important life lessons for each of us, so to be open to them and be aware of them and figure out afterward how we can carry them forward.”