Temple De Hirsch Sinai is a striking, white building set in Capitol Hill, a major gathering space for the Jewish community that once thrived in the area due to historical marginalization. Normally, congregants gather there for prayers and community, particularly now in the holy time of Passover, the celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from oppressive Egyptian rule.
But these are not normal times.
Rather than come together in song and prayer, worshipers sat at home, watching a livestream of Rabbi Callie Schulman and musician Chava Mirel as the pair guided them through Friday evening services.
At one point, Schulman reaches over to light the Shabbat candle.
“I’m in the romper room, so we have our electric version tonight,” Schulman says, turning the device over to flip a switch on the bottom. A small lightbulb flickers into life.
Springtime is a crucial holiday for the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Between Passover, Easter and the holy month of Ramadan, each of the three faith communities has some of their most important celebrations and remembrances of the year during this time: marking the freedom of the Jewish people, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Quran from God to the Prophet Mohammed.
The threat of the deadly coronavirus has disrupted these celebrations, forcing people to stay apart, to break with community in order to preserve it. A pause in religious gatherings does not mean a cessation of worship, however.
Faith communities are innovating, finding new ways to congregate and provide spiritual succor as they ramp up efforts to provide material support to people in need.
Temple De Hirsch Sinai already streamed its services online, but the “stay at home” order delivered by Gov. Jay Inslee on March 23 threw their processes into overdrive. Now it wasn’t just services that one could find through the Zoom online meeting platform or streaming on Facebook Live. Spiritual classes and community building shifted to the virtual space as well.
The temple set up a special Facebook page, separate from its main page, so that congregants could hang out together, passing messages and entertaining one another.
“There was a challah bake-off (a ritual bread bake-off). Maybe a matzo-throwdown,” Senior Rabbi Daniel Weiner said. “People are coming up with all kinds of crazy stuff. They’re generating new expressions of community.”
The temple organized call lists so that people could check in on their fellow worshipers, bringing people together who might otherwise not have interacted even when they sang and contemplated the lessons of the Torah alongside one other. Members who feel secure going to the grocery store gather supplies for those in greater danger of the disease.
“As much as we have been struggling and are frustrated by constraints in place from social distancing, in many ways it has opened up another level and dynamic of community,” Weiner said.
Christian churches are finding similar joinders.
Easter came and went on Sunday, April 12, with unusual silence. Under normal circumstances, Christians come to churches for Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper before Jesus Christ’s execution; Good Friday, the day he died; and Easter Sunday, when God raised him from the dead.
Easter Sunday is one of two days in the church calendar, alongside Christmas, where pews are packed with families. Children run about in their pastel finery, searching for Easter eggs filled with candy, a coin or another small treat.
None of this is possible under social distancing — there are few better vectors for germs than sitting side-by-side in pews or having small children putting their grubby little fingers all over plastic eggs.
“From my vantage point, it’s at the congregational level where the rubber meets the road,” said Michael Ramos, the executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. “Religious leaders and clergy are providing different means of spiritual support, worship and coming together virtually. Hundreds of clergy are doing the same thing. It’s not just one place, but literally hundreds.”
Congregations are putting together grab-and-go meals and financial help for people tight on funds for life essentials like medications and housing. Religious organizations such as Catholic Community Services are coming up with creative ways throughout the county to maximize shelter, meal provision and social distancing for people experiencing homelessness who are sheltering under their roofs.
No one is spared from the impact of the coronavirus, whether they lose a loved one, become ill themselves or suffer from the loneliness, Ramos said. Finding ways to overcome the pain of separation is part of keeping the faith.
“That is, in itself, a heroic and faithful act to support one another by maintaining physical distance and connecting with one another virtually in new ways and maintaining the link that binds us together as a community,” Ramos said. “Not just as a faith community, but a wider community that is going through this together.”
For the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the coronavirus meant shutting down Friday prayers and a wider need for the organization’s charitable work.
As the realization of the severity of the virus hit, MAPS launched a comprehensive response. The first week, they received a large response. The next week, they received more requests for assistance in a day than they had the previous week, said Aneelah Afzali, the executive director of MAPS-AMEN, the American Muslim Empowerment Network.
“We have been seeing this exponential growth,” she said. “The same way the virus has been growing exponentially, we’ve seen that growth in demand.”
Muslim-led organizations throughout the community and the nation are similarly stepping up. Homegrown networks are popping up next to larger, institutional actors, mobilizing many congregants who want to help one another.
Dina Al-Bassyiouni isn’t used to sitting around with free time. She found herself saddled with a lot of it when the University of Washington shut down the dental clinic where she trains. A friend stumbled across a Seattle-area mutual aid network, and they decided to set one up for the East Side.
“We started off receiving maybe one or two request a day at max,” Al-Bassyiouni said. “Three weeks in, we had 30 to 40 requests a day.”
Roughly 170 people have signed up to volunteer, helping people across a vast swath of the East Side. People may not be able to do deliveries, but there is a use for each person’s talents. Some are rustling up donations, others writing grants to institutions to fund their work. They’re also looking for translators to make their request forms accessible for people who speak Spanish, Somali and other languages.
In Seattle, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) has been holding meals every Saturday at the fountain near the Pioneer Square light rail station for people experiencing homelessness and works with local grocery stores to package and deliver boxes of necessities to people who can’t make it to the store or can’t afford groceries due to limited income or job loss. That work has started to become more difficult — finding basics like flour and sugar during self-isolation is challenging, at best.
Giving back to the community is an integral part of the Islamic faith. There is nothing more important than the preservation of life, said Farid Sulayman, outreach coordinator with ICNA in Seattle.
“If you kill one life, it’s like killing all of humanity. If you save one life, you save all of humanity. This is what the Quran teaches us,” Sulayman said. “Helping our neighbors, families and friends — this is what pleases God.”
In just a few weeks, the holy month of Ramadan will begin, during which time Muslims fast while the sun is up, refusing food and water until the evening. Ramadan is the time that people in the Islamic community step up even more, give back even more, Sulayman said.
“You start to think about all of the people who are hungry that do not have the choice to fast. In this sense, we tend to give more and help more, because it’s waking us up,” he said.
A defining era
Each faith community derives lessons and meanings from the disaster that the coronavirus represents. Some see it as a challenge, a test of faith and right action that will leave the world better than when it started.
The moment is bound up in the Passover message, said Rabbi Weiner. The Hebrew word for Egypt is close to another that signifies “that which constrains us.” The virus is a very real constraint on community as well as individual freedoms and desires.
“It inspires and empowers us to find new ways to operate that provide new avenues for freedom and connection,” he said.
Faith can assure that “this too shall pass.” Someday, the virus will be controlled, and then gone, as humanity has defeated so many diseases in the past. That sentiment fits good times as well as bad.
“When we are celebrating wonderful times together, they are also transient, fleeting,” Weiner said. “We have to double down on the blessings and gifts that we take for granted, because those also pass.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 15-21, 2020 issue.