Finding new ways to worship and celebrate

Families and congregations coming together online for Passover and Easter

This Passover will be the first in more than 60 years that Ruthie Dennis and her siblings won’t celebrate with their mother, an 87-year-old Sunset resident and Holocaust survivor.

“It’s devastating,” Dennis said. “Passover means a gathering of all of us together. It means we enjoy our time together. We laugh, we sing and we cry and we celebrate.”

She said celebrating online wouldn’t feel right, but for many religious practitioners it’s the only way to safely celebrate their respective holidays in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with the prospect of celebrating Passover and Easter alone during the shelter-in-place order, many Jews and Christians are instead using web cameras to connect with friends, family and their religious communities for online dinners and services.

The transition can be difficult for older congregation members, who are often isolated and less up-to-date with technology. Gordon Gladstone, executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel, said he has been working to explain to older members through phone calls how they can use Zoom.

“It’s challenging online in every respect,” Gladstone said. “We’ll be able to navigate the ritual aspects of it. I do not know if we’ll be able to provide people with as rich a social experience as they would otherwise.”

The demand is definitely there. The Archdiocese of San Francisco, which has 40 of 90 churches going online in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties, has seen an increase in attendance at its online masses.

“People are hungry for mass,” said Mike Brown, communications director for the archdiocese. “They’re in their house, they’re sheltering in place, they’re committed Catholics who go to mass regularly, and I think that creates the right environment for one to go as often as possible.”

Congregation Sherith Israel and Sha’ar Zahav have also seen more attendance online; attendance has doubled at the latter’s Friday night Shabbat service.

“We suspect we’ll have a higher than normal participation at our (now online) second night Passover Seder,” said Nancy Levin, president of Sha’ar Zahav. “We’re also calling each of our members to check in and say hello. With all of this isolation, we find that people really appreciate the personal contact. And just seeing people’s faces online and hearing their voices makes a difference.”

The situation also has some irony because it recalls the 10 plagues of the Passover story, said Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University.

“If Passover is what it’s like to remember what it’s like to have a plague, this year it’s real,” Dollinger said. “The last plague represents slavery to freedom — this year it’s reversed, going from freedom to stuck in our homes.”

Like many this time around, he plans to create a Haggadah — a booklet of prayers — at and hold the Passover meal and celebration through Zoom. The change will mean needing to teach his parents to use Zoom and pass on to his two daughters the Passover traditions. It also means not seeing people in person and reflecting powerfully on the meaning of slavery and freedom, he said.

“This is a time for profound reflection with everyone we hold near and dear,” he said. “With a thousand people dying every day, it gives us pause to reflect what’s important.”

For Christina Weyer Jamora, a practicing Christian and Excelsior resident, Easter has always been a time to celebrate through church, open baskets, shared meals and time with friends. Now especially, it’s a time for reflection, she said.

Leading up to this Easter she’s reflected more on her family values — values to be upheld even amid social distancing, she said. Her family recently put together a crest representing their values: perseverance, strength and integrity.

“How do we persevere through this crisis together instead of apart when each of us is struggling?” she said. “How do we reach out and support each other in our family?”

For practicing Catholic Denyse Garrintano-Fisher, who lives in the Excelsior with her husband, the pandemic will prevent her from celebrating with family and visiting her 98-year-old mother-in-law near Golden Gate Park.

She’s attending virtual mass at the Church of the Epiphany.

“Normally, it’s all of us,” she said. “Easter means telling memories of days gone past — old times. Memories.”

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