During a time when community is at its hardest to come by, and as such it is most essential, California’s COVID-19 restrictions have allowed places of worship to stay open, an early fall decision that has led to a conundrum for religious leaders. A great debate reigns between whether to stay virtual and safe, or to acknowledge some risk and reinstate masked, in-person meeting. From the perspective of these houses of worship, the debate is particularly poignant; many people are dependent on the community, care, and compassion these places foster. The answers to this question vary, but each of these places of worship have been altered by the pandemic and perhaps forever.
The synagogue Congregation Beth Israel has opted to continue in-person worship, albeit with serious changes. “The synagogue moved services to an outdoor field to accommodate the congregation. Chairs are set up six feet apart, and the synagogue rented tents for shade and cover,” explained Emma Schnur, director of the associated Gan Shalom preschool, speaking about a process that has also been adopted by the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. The Associate Minister of First Congregational, Kelly Colwell, said, “When guidelines relaxed to allow indoor services in the fall, we held a few very small, masked, outdoor services in people’s yards.” However, this was not possible for the larger gatherings hosted by the Congregation Beth Israel.
Although most houses of worship have refrained from indoor meetings, Gan Shalom has continued to meet as an in-person school. Schnur said, “Gan Shalom has been holding an in-person program since July. It has not been easy, as there are many regulations we now have to abide by … Children and the teachers wear face masks. Teachers spend a lot of time disinfecting.” Such processes mimic the typical precautions taken by open or hybrid-learning classrooms. For Schnur’s Gan Shalom, the goal remains to “provide the children with as normal an environment as we can, while still prioritizing health and safety … It is my job to keep the core educational philosophy of the program the same while adhering to new regulations.”
They strive for a similar goal when adapting religious services to occur over the internet. Michael Saxe-Taller, executive director of Kehilla Synagogue, said, “All of our celebrations and ceremonies have, over the past year, looked dramatically different and yet somewhat the same … We still do many of the same religious rituals and use the same liturgy, but we are each in our own homes and celebrating on our computers.”
The texts and traditions of these faiths have been passed down for millenia; to expect them to change now would be unreasonable. For Craig Yoshihara, the pastor of Berkeley Methodist Church, it is comforting to know that despite the shift in medium, some things still remain the same. “We just don’t feel like God is limited to in-person worship and wouldn’t want us to put people in danger by gathering together. Online worship feels more like what we are used to than if we were in person,” said Yoshihara. “At least online, we can sing from the safety of our homes, pray for each other, and spend time talking to each other before and after worship.”
Undoubtedly, the forced advent of virtual congregation is hardly ideal. Saxe-Taller said, “[Our members] are really looking forward to returning to in-person programs and services in the future,” a feeling clearly shared by all. However, some changes wrought by the ongoing pandemic are here to stay. “I think having experimented with it, we will have online worship permanently,” said Yoshihara. “We’ve found that because of it, people who are stuck at home are still able to be part of our community and some who we haven’t seen for a long time or who have moved away can still worship with us because of being virtual. Plus, I love the variety of music we’ve been able to do from home.”
Naomi Sanchez, Berkeley Methodist’s music director, shared Yoshihara’s sentiment. “The pandemic has opened my knowledge and comfort level with online communication [and music making], as well as teaching others how to use it effectively,” she said.
Creating a sense of community over Zoom and video conferences has been difficult, but it has also created unity between worshipers as everyone works through difficulties together. As Colwell put it, “People are very concerned that community will feel thin or anemic online. But what we’re realizing is that it doesn’t have to. It’s what we make it.”