Easter and Passover celebrated in a 'world turned upside down' as churches and synagogues close due to coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • Many Christian and Jewish houses of worship are shuttered this week as congregations celebrate the Easter and Passover holidays online while practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Brooklyn Heights Synagogue are streaming religious services and holding Zoom video events to help congregation members overcome isolation during the quarantine.  
Cathedral of St. John the Divine as pictured on April 7, 2020 in New York.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine tried to keep its doors open for people in New York City to pray during the coronavirus pandemic.

The cathedral, located in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, implemented protocols that would allow people to worship together while remaining safe and healthy. Church members avoided hugging or shaking hands, and clergy tried to conduct communion in a way that would limit human contact. 

Ultimately the Episcopal cathedral, one of the largest in the world, shuttered its doors indefinitely as the pandemic escalated, the first time the 128-year-old New York City landmark has done so in its modern history.  

"The cathedral has never been closed like this before," said Rev. Canon Patrick Malloy, responsible for the cathedral's liturgy. "When we had a fire in December 2001, it forced the cathedral to close, but not indefinitely. This is highly unusual for us — we pride ourselves on always being open."

St. John the Divine is one of many Christian and Jewish houses of worship that are shuttered this week as congregations celebrate the Easter and Passover holidays online, amid shelter-in-place orders and social-distancing measures designed to stop the coronavirus epidemic from spreading even further, particularly in hard-hit New York City. There are 94,409 confirmed coronavirus cases in the city, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, accounting for nearly 20% of the nationwide case total of 501,615.

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, is broadcasting Shabbat services to congregants in the safety of their homes through a live stream. Senior Rabbi Serge Lippe held a Passover Seder with dozens of participants through video conference on the platform Zoom. While Lippe, 55, was grateful to engage with his community, he compared the experience to being underwater due to the time lag and limitations on hearing. 

"Passover has been diminished and limited," Lippe said. "It's a holiday that, for Jews, speaks of freedom and liberation, but we're not feeling particularly freed or liberated this season." 

Rabbi Serge Lippe holds Shabbat service via live stream. April 10, 2020
Handout | Screen grab of live service

Malloy also expressed frustration he is unable to be physically present for members of St. John the Divine, particularly during Holy Week and the Easter holiday. The church is streaming morning and evening prayers, and the Easter service will be taped Saturday and broadcast at noon Sunday. A handful of clergy and laypeople come together virtually and broadcast Sunday services from their apartments, complete with music, scripture readings and a sermon. 

But the sharing of bread and wine, the core of the service, cannot be done remotely. "What we do on Sunday is Holy Communion which is a very personal and intimate experience and all of that is now taken from us," Malloy said. 

Though technology imposes frustrating limitations on intimate religious experiences, St. John the Divine and Brooklyn Heights Synagogue community members are grateful to have an outlet that helps them overcome the isolation of a quarantine that currently has no definitive end in sight. 

"For many people it's really an oasis of calm and comfort and constancy in the midst of world turned upside down," Lippe said of Brooklyn Heights. 

Marsha Ra, who has attended St. John the Divine for 47 years, said the health crisis is frightening as members of the congregation have lost loved ones to the virus. Ra, 78, is concerned about catching the virus herself because she has pre-existing conditions. Amidst the fear and uncertainty, she has found comfort in the Zoom services, which she described as "incredibly moving," despite frustrating technical problems at times.  

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is holding Easter service online amid the coronavirus pandemic. April 10, 2020.

"People were so excited to see each other when we first started, it took us an hour to start service," Ra said. And in some ways, she feels like she's forging deeper connections with her church community. 

St. John the Divine formed a group in which each person was given a list of congregation members to call and check in on. Ra spoke to a young medical student who expressed how he was lonely and frustrated that his board exam had been postponed. She also called a young woman whose confirmation in the church has been postponed now that the cathedral is closed. The young woman asked Ra to add several family members who are sick with the virus to the prayer list. 

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue has a caring committee that regularly checks on congregation members who are older than 60 or who have underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus. The committee delivers groceries and medicine to elderly members who ask for assistance. During Passover, they delivered matzo bread.

Lippe has faced personal hardship due to social distancing guidelines. He was unable to attend the burial of a personal mentor from rabbinic school who recently passed away, a situation he described as "heartbreaking." Despite the difficulties, Lippe is encouraging his congregation to reach into their religious tradition and find hope. 

"Despair is very seductive," Lippe said. "I think we in the religious leadership community are most afraid of people giving in to despair — and we're trying to raise people's spirits and remind them hope is worth holding onto."