An Abraham's Table dialogue event. (Melike Akoglu)

Interfaith Dialogue, Worship Continue Online Under Stay-at-Home Order

Dialogue and worship go online in and across religious communities as they find new ways to engage people and bring them together

Restrictions on public gatherings to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus have shut down most religious services and forced people to find new avenues for fellowship and community-building.

“Since we’ve had to close, there have been no services at all,” Rabbi Elazar Grossman at Long Island Torah Network said. “We’ve been using online resources – mainly Zoom – to continue with educational and social programming alongside some ceremonies.”

Zach Joseph read the Torah on a Zoom call to over 20 members from his Long Island community who joined in his bar mitzvah online. The rabbi called on Joseph to loudly say “Mazel tov!” as his family and friends congratulated him from the Zoom chat section.

The Rabbinical Assembly, which issues opinions on Jewish law for Judaism’s Conservative movement, advised following civil and medical guidance. It also advised engaged Jews to postpone their weddings, if possible. “Protecting human life overrides almost every other Jewish value,” the assembly said in a statement. Bar and bat mitzvah services were among the religious activities that were suspended by an order from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced that all nonessential businesses and activities would temporarily close as of March 20. The ban is still in place. Over 20 synagogues across Long Island now continue their services online and even host web-based dialogue programs with other religious communities.

“Our mission is to be an agent of progress and solidarity, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims work to create a climate that respects the dignity of every person and has an increasingly diverse Long Island,” Jeffrey Clopper, rabbi at Temple Beth El in Huntington, said. “We do this through continuous honest and respectful dialogue even during this pandemic.”

By moving online, many synagogues and mosques have persevered their core functions despite the physical constraints.

A rabbi, an Islamic scholar, and a reverend sit across their computers on a Zoom call waiting for the moderator to start an interactive panel held by Abraham’s Table of Long Island. “Faith in This Time of COVID-19: How Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Help Us Cope With Adversity,” was held in late April on Zoom and simultaneously livestreamed on YouTube. With over 50 participants, the YouTube comment section was full of praise and questions for the panel.

“Diversity in religion, culture, and race,” Richard Koubek, moderator of Abraham’s Table of Long Island said. “These are the things we hope to [instill] with peaceful dialogues.”

The live panel specifically discussed how faith traditions guide people to cope with adversity and what actions are called for in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. The panel was originally scheduled to take place at a church in Huntington but was moved to a virtual platform due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Abraham’s Table Long Island has a vision based on the twin beliefs that people can bring about constructive progress and that people’s dignity and basic human rights must be preserved. The group teamed up with the Turkish Cultural Center and Setauket Presbyterian Church to put the panel together.

Some individuals are wary of following the preventative measures pertaining to COVID-19 recommended by the government and international organizations. Thus, faith actors also utilized this platform to educate and reassure people, encourage them to stay home, and reiterate religious teachings that show the importance of these measures for the safety of the community.

“All members should do as authorities tell them to do,” Islamic scholar Zuleyha Colak said. “There is no distinction between who will get infected and social distancing is something we all need to practice at times like this.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told its 17 million members worldwide that all public gatherings would be suspended until further notice. The panel encouraged those who are faithful to be patient and to remember that God is always there with them.

“I keep picturing in my mind the hospital settings,” Rev. Kate Jones Calone, interim pastor at Setauket Presbyterian Church, said. “Anyone there should know that God is already ahead of us there and he is present there with people and sharing in that sort of crisis and moment.”

The panelist also touched upon how the coronavirus has brought attention to disparities that normally go unnoticed in our daily lives.

“It calls us to a new way of seeing things around academic and racial disparities and things that are being brought to the event more vividly and tragically,” Calone said. “Maybe this will effect some real change. Not by stopping everything but by taking real actions going forward to make that kind of commitment which we are now seeing is a possibility.”

Not all temple services can be easily moved online, though. Shiva, the period of mourning that follows a death in the Jewish community, usually involves forming prayer groups of at least 10 people in the home of the mourning family. For many Muslims, group prayers on Friday are a religious obligation that cannot be done online. But as congregations across the country and the world weighed whether to stay open, experts in Islamic law stepped in, telling people not to gather but rather to take this time to connect with God in other ways.

The virtual format has altered the structure of rituals for many religions, enabling new ways for members to connect.

“There’s something special almost about seeing everyone at the same time,” Ceyda Iyimaya, a member of the Turkish Cultural Center, said. “On Zoom, we see each other in each other’s homes instead of in a center or mosque. We don’t have to look a certain way and I think this makes our meetings more genuine.”

Participants in these virtual services have shrunk in size but the response from members is overwhelmingly positive, Rabbi Clopper said.

“The prayers are full of gratefulness and the wonders of our lives,” Liza Chizner, a member of West End Temple in Neponset, said. “It’s interesting to see everyone come together in times of chaos. Jews have prayed through worse and we have been through worse.”

COVID-19, a plague that has forced everyone into self-exile may be remembered as a time for communities to pray together.

“With all of our religions we can see that there are moments of suffering but there is also reason to be helpful,” Clopper said.

Rabia Gursoy is a student in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program. Ms. Gursoy attends the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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