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Pandemic Disrupts Holy Season For St. Louis Jews And Christians Alike

Illustration of two people inside apartments. One is watching an Easter service on TV. The other is sitting at a computer participating in a Seder.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
The coronavirus pandemic has forced communal celebrations of Easter and Passover into the digital space.

The spring season is a festive one in Judaism and Christianity. Both Easter and Passover celebrate rebirth and renewal, often with large gatherings.

Passover, which begins at sundown Wednesday, is marked by the Seder. People gather with friends and family in their homes or head to the synagogue for the ritual re-telling of the exodus from Egypt. For Christians, seven days of church services, known as Holy Week, culminate in Easter Sunday, which often includes a family dinner.

Easter and Passover are among the most observed holidays in the U.S. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of American Jews participated in a Seder in the previous year. And polls routinely find that at least half of American Christians will attend Easter services.

But the pandemic is forcing people of both faiths to adopt new ways of practicing ancient rituals.

Easter celebrations in St. Louis

The Gathering, a United Methodist church with campuses in Clayton, Webster Groves and Ellendale, originally planned to host an Easter celebration for its nearly 5,000 members at Chaifetz Arena.

For lead pastor Matt Miofsky, the decision to cancel the event was difficult but necessary.

“To try to push it not only was unwise from a health standpoint, but probably not the best way to show care and compassion for the people that we serve,” Miofsky said.

The church suspended all in-person services in mid-March as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and moved to online worship only. They’ve had record online attendance in the past few weeks, Miofsky said, and they expect even larger audiences to tune in on Easter.

Though some congregations have opted to postpone services until the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has lifted, Miofsky believes a period of darkness and uncertainty is the best time to share the story of Easter.

“It's a story about a God who can take despair and turn it into hope,” he said. “It could be celebrated anywhere — in a garden, in a cave, in a stadium or people's living rooms. That's what we hold onto: That while so many of our traditions have changed, the story and what it means remains the same.”

Catholic Churches are also shuttered during Holy Week this year, and many important Easter traditions, like the procession of the cross and fireside Easter vigil, are canceled. Still, a core group of church leaders, including Archbishop Robert Carlson, have continued holding Mass via livestream at the Cathedral Basilica. 

Monsignor Henry Breier, the cathedral’s rector, said it’s difficult to preach to rows of empty pews, but he’s heartened by the hundreds of viewers watching Mass from their homes. 

“This livestreaming enables people to feel connected to their faith, to their church, even though they can't go there,” Breier said.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has been livestreaming services from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, shown here, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Matthew Shipp | Flickr
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has been livestreaming services from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, shown here, during the coronavirus pandemic.

While congregants are not able to receive the Eucharist, Breier said they’ve begun saying a special Communion prayer, ending with the words, ‘Never permit me to be separated from you.’”

In St. Charles, Jennifer Haynes is mentally preparing to celebrate her first Easter without her parents or siblings. Normally, they would attend Easter services at their local church and have a family meal together, she said — but concerns over the coronavirus have forced them to scuttle their plans.

Still, celebrating Easter is a central part of her faith. This year, Haynes plans to watch church services online while her two young daughters are napping. 

“They’re on the move all the time, so watching things live is hard,” Haynes said. “We tried last week, and about 10 minutes in, my daughter was like, ‘Can I watch Mickey now?’”

Her neighborhood is also planning a few Easter surprises for its younger residents. One neighbor has offered to dress up in a bunny costume and walk down the middle of the street, waving to kids inside their homes. Others are planning to hang paper Easter eggs in their windows, so kids can hunt for them from the sidewalk. 

Haynes has another surprise in store for her 2-year-old: a “socially distant” solo backyard Easter egg hunt. 

“She's so young, but she knows something is wrong,” Haynes said. “I want to, as much as possible, give her something to celebrate.”

Passover during a pandemic

Lev and Katie Rice-Guter had planned for months to celebrate Passover with his family on the East Coast.

“We were going to fly out a week away from the actual Seders, but on a weekend, and we could all rendezvous in New Jersey and have a big Seder there,” Guter said. His brother and sister-in-law and their two children live in New Jersey, and his parents are in Sarasota, Florida.

But the virus quickly upended those plans. Now Lev and Katie, his family, and her mother and stepfather will connect using the video conferencing tool Zoom.

Rachel Lippmann explores how Jews in the St. Louis area are holding their Seders during the coronavirus pandemic.

“My side of the family is more improvisational,” Rice-Guter said. “Now that things are moved to Zoom, it’s more Rice style. We’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get it together, we’ll send a link; I’m sure we’ll find a Haggadah that everyone can access online.’” 

The Haggadah is the text Jews recite at Seders.

The Mentle family has also moved their Seder to Zoom this year. On the plus side, the extended family will be able to participate in the rituals together for the first time in years. But it still won’t be the same, said 13-year-old Audrey Mentle.

“I really enjoy getting to be with my family on holidays, because we all have a good time and we all eat a lot of food, and it’ll be sad to miss the feeling of just being with each other,” she said. 

More observant Jews do not use electronics on holidays, which rules out hosting Seders on platforms like Zoom or Facebook Live. And large family gatherings are out because of stay-at-home orders.

Rabbi Yosef Landa, the regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, realized that meant many people would need to lead a Seder for the first time. So his organization created“Seder in a Box.”It includes wine or grape juice, the Seder plate and the ritual foods that go on it.  

Volunteer Macy Sisson loads Passover supplies, including a Seder to go, into a trunk of a car at Chabad Center for Life and Learning in University City on April 6, 2020.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Volunteer Macy Sisson loads Passover supplies, including a Seder to go, into a trunk of a car at Chabad Center for Life and Learning in University City on Monday.

“There will be many more Seders than in years past, but they’ll be smaller, they’ll be more intimate, and we want to provide them the implements and information that they need in order to do that in a meaningful way,” Landa said.

B’nai Amoona, a synagogue in west St. Louis County, is also providing a boxed Seder. They include some of the traditional foods that families of Eastern European descent might eat for the Passover meal.

B’nai Amoona’s senior rabbi, Carnie Shalom Rose, has been teaching online classes to help people get a deeper understanding of the holiday. The congregation is also streaming the Passover services, although not the Seder itself.

Rose said he’ll most miss the large interfaith Seder B’nai Amoona hosts in fulfillment of the commandment, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

“We make connections that minimize some of the anger and resentment and hostility and racism and xenophobia and jingoism that are so much a part of the world in which we find ourselves today,” he said.

For Rice-Guter, whose extended family will gather for a Seder on Zoom, the story of the Exodus is resonating deeply this year.

“The commandment at Passover every year is to really feel like it was you who was going forth from Egypt and you who were experiencing all those things,” she said. “And that deep emotional resonance is there this year in a way that I wish it weren’t.”

Rose has found himself reflecting on the phrase that concludes every Seder — “next year in Jerusalem.”

“For us as Jews, Jerusalem is always at the forefront of our mind. Of course it’s the eternal capital of the Jewish people, but it’s also a metaphor that next year will always be better,” he said.

The rebirth promised by spring may come later this year, he said, but it will arrive.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.