With Passover, Easter and Ramadan looming, clergy scramble to create holidays at a distance

The Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg works on a digital message to parishioners at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in the District on April 2. (MUST CREDIT: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg canceled the Boston ferns and the yellow daffodils for the Easter service ordered for his Episcopal church in Washington’s affluent Kalorama neighborhood. Rabbi Levi Shemtov scrapped plans for the 200-person Seder dinner for Passover in his Chabad synagogue nearby. And Imam Yahya Luqman called off the Ramadan dinners at his mosque down the street.

These three faith leaders, who normally lead worship within walking distance from each other in Northwest Washington, are all scrambling to find socially distant ways to celebrate major religious holidays this month. They are joined by clergy and the faithful around the world, including at well-known Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites in Jerusalem and beyond.

On Sunday, Christians will launch Holy Week with Palm Sunday, preparing to recount the biblical story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Since St. Margaret’s canceled services, including for Easter on April 12, Weinberg has been working on a sermon about the life and message of Jesus that he will post on YouTube.

“People are dealing with profound loss, so we have to adapt,” Weinberg said.

He knows his religious peers are in the same boat.

“We collegially greet one another because we share an alley,” Weinberg said of Shemtov and Luqman, whose houses of worship are located around the corner from his Connecticut Avenue church, on Leroy Place NW. “There’s a beauty in that we’re in this together.”

At TheSHUL of the Nation’s Capital, Shemtov has personnel arranging boxes that include matzoh and the other traditional elements of a Seder meal to be distributed to the Jewish community. The rabbi, who avoids the use of electronics on holy days, will lead a live-stream demonstration of the Seder before Passover begins at sundown Wednesday.

“Being alone is antithetical to the spirit of Passover,” said Shemtov, whose synagogue is attended by President Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

For many families, the multigenerational aspect will especially be missing because older people are in isolation, Shemtov said, and Jewish families often invite people who have no place to go to join them for the Seder meal.

“People are doing the absolute best they can,” Shemtov said. “It’s different and not as joyous as other years have been, but people are focusing inward on their family and personally as opposed to outward.”

The synagogue shares the same tiny, one-way street as the American Fazl Mosque, a stately converted rowhouse that is the oldest Muslim house of worship in the nation’s capital. Luqman said his mosque, established by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1950, would normally host about 50 people each night of Ramadan for an iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast, starting on April 23. Instead, this year, families will break fast in their homes.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a blessing in disguise because there’s a pandemic, but there are all these distractions in people’s lives that disrupt their religious duties” Luqman said, citing the obligation to pray five times a day as one such duty. “When people are at home, they can turn their attention to these prayers.”

In Jerusalem, the strict coronavirus social distancing regulations that have been in place for most of March look set to continue through April, upending traditional holiday plans for Jews, Muslims and Christians and threatening the country’s tourism industry.

Passover, Easter and Ramadan typically draw hundreds of thousands of international visitors and pilgrims of all faiths to Israel, but this year Christian and Muslim leaders have accepted that flagship events will be carried out with only essential clergy and, in many cases, streamed online for followers.

Israeli Jews, who spend the first night of Passover recounting the exodus from Egypt during the festive Seder meal, were instructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a “lockdown Seder” this year.

“I request that you hold in it in the context of the nuclear family that lives with you,” he urged in a televised address.

He also shared a public service announcement urging Jews not to gather in groups. “We outlasted and overcame Pharaoh, we’ll outlast and overcome this.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said police patrols would be stepped up to enforce the social distancing restrictions and ensure people adhere to all the regulations.

For all Christians groups, the restrictions mean annual parades are canceled and the number of people at the main prayer ceremonies will be vastly reduced. The Holy Fire Ceremony, an Orthodox tradition that takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem’s Old City where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected, typically draws 25,000 the day before Easter.

This year, only key clergy and a camera crew will be present. The fire, which is flown to churches in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Serbia and Cyprus, will be transferred with a police escort to the country’s airport. Clergy, sent from Orthodox churches to guard and collect the flame, will not be permitted to leave their planes.

Wadie Abu Nasser, director of the media committee of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, estimated that the majority of the estimated 180,000 Arab Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian territories would pray at home with the vast majority of churches live-streaming events. “It is very sad but we believe health comes first,” Abu Nasser said.

At the Haram al-Sharif holy sanctuary – the third holiest site in Islam, which includes the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock – the gates have been shuttered for more than two weeks. The site, which is also holy to Jews who refer to it as the Temple Mount, is closed to Jewish and other non-Muslim visitors too.

“I never thought I would see something like this,” said Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, director of the Waqf Islamic trust, which manages the compound under a special arrangement between Jordan and Israel. “In Islam, the priority is to protect human life, before spiritual and religious practices. But this situation is sad for me.”

The long-term impact of the social distancing on religious groups is unclear, though many leaders fear the immediate impact on giving donations to houses of worship.

“I’m wondering what the effects on future public attendance will be,” said Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. “Will people feel comfortable being in the same pew, or being shoulder to shoulder, as they’re used to?”

Robert Putnam, who wrote the 2000 book “Bowling Alone” about how Americans had become increasingly disconnected from one another by joining fewer clubs, having fewer family dinners and having friends over less frequently, said he doesn’t believe this period apart will likely have a lasting impact on religious attendance in the United States. But it will cause religious organizations and families to be creative in the short-term.

Putnam, who also co-wrote “American Grace” about how religion unites and divides Americans, said he will be having a virtual Seder with his children and grandchildren who are scattered across the globe.

“Some people surely will say this reminds them how nice it was to sit in pews with people,” he said. “Being isolated has reminded some, I like being around people.”

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