Faith in the Face of COVID-19

IFLC Newsletter editor Stacy Gittleman ponders the far-reaching consequences COVID-19 will have on the way we gather and pray.

Judaism is a religion filled with kisses.

From a young age, we teach our children as they walk through a doorway to kiss a mezuzah, a cylindrical vessel nailed to our doorposts that contain central texts from the Torah.

When we drop a prayer book, it is customary to give the book a kiss and often, we put our lips to our prayer books as we finish praying.

Enter most Jewish synagogues or temples on a Saturday morning and you will see the ritual of the Torah processional. The start and end of the Torah service are marked by walking the dressed Torah around the sanctuary. To show reverence and respect to Judaism’s most precious possession, it is traditional to touch the Torah with one’s fingertips, a prayer book or a prayer shawl, and then bring that touch to your lips. Full of pomp and circumstance, the processional is a high point in the morning service, with singing and chanting. Often, congregants take a moment to greet their friends standing nearby.

These are rituals that are done week after week, generation after generation. Also, there are the warm hugs, handshakes, and kisses on the cheek as we greet our friends, something that goes on in all our houses of worship.

But last week, when I attended Shabbat services at my synagogue, things were different. Instead of handshakes and kisses, there were the awkward fist or elbow bumps. Our ushers squirted our hands with sanitizer before handing us our prayer books. In fact, we got squirted each time we left and reentered the sanctuary.

Most striking for me was the elimination of the Torah processional. Our rabbi and lay leaders took the Torah out, sang the psalms from a distance from the rest of the congregation, and placed the open scroll on the table for the weekly reading. The elimination of this ritual may have reduced contact between congregants, but the precaution put a somber feel to Shabbat morning. We were literally taking drastic measures to keep our sanctuary a sanctuary from the Coronavirus.

As I prayed, I thought: What changes to services and rituals are taking place in the houses of worship of my Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh neighbors as we together face the threat of the COVID-19?

IFLC Vice Chairman Robert Bruttell said he was saddened at his church service, where for the first time in 50 years, there was no wine ritual.

“We also have a ritual which we call the kiss of peace,” he said. “It involves a handshake with many people in the congregation during the mass. We were encouraged to not shake hands but rather to bow to one another or to touch elbows. Some people did fist bumps. On past Sundays, I would have hugged people I know very well but not anymore. It was kind of sad.”

Just as much as we attend our synagogues, temples, mosques churches and gurdwaras to connect with the Divine, we go to be with our friends and community. Indeed, religious services and the connections we feel there can be the anecdote to isolation. In the coming weeks, it will be hard for me to refrain from giving handshakes or embraces to friends and other congregants.

That’s if there will be services at all.

While services can be and are often live-streamed in the digital age, there is no substitution for showing up and sitting with your congregation in the pews, or shoulder to shoulder on a prayer rug.

So where are we going from here?

IFLC welcomes you to write to us and tell us the changes taking place at your house of worship. How are your religious practices and rituals changing as we grapple and try to slow the spread of Coronavirus?

Let us also know if your house of worship is creating a strategy to check in with the most vulnerable members of our congregations, how you are organizing perhaps to help families who may fall ill or be quarantined with running errands, childcare, creating meal trees, etc. It may be a model for the rest of us to follow.

We welcome to open this conversation with you.

For further resources, please click on this link below provided by the CDC that offers precautions specific to faith-based organizations:

Interim Guidance: Get Your Community- and Faith-Based Organizations Ready for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)