Churches and synagogues go digital amid coronavirus

Middle Collegiate Church’s Rev. Jacqui Lewis (pictured left during Pride last year) said that the church wants to encourage community even while people can’t meet together in person. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

In this bizarre new world of isolation and self-quarantine, local houses of worship are adjusting with the circumstances to bring services to people in their homes to give New Yorkers a sense of community. 

Various synagogues and churches emailed members at the end of last week as the number of coronavirus cases in the city began escalating and government officials began to implement restrictions on gatherings, letting them know that services would be live-streamed or in some cases available to watch later. Rabbi Josh Stanton of East End Temple sent a message to members of the synagogue near Stuyvesant Square Park last Thursday to announce that the building would be closed starting on Friday following the advice of public health officials. 

“This is a moment in which we need to fully live out our values, in this case to protect each other and society more broadly from the spread of COVID-19,” Stanton said in the email. “We acknowledge that some other institutions will remain open, but we feel a social duty to engage in ‘social distancing’ in order to slow the spread of the virus. […] At the same time, we need to be even more present for each other. Each household can expect to hear from our clergy in the coming week. We also invite you to call and email your friends from the community, so that they can feel the warmth of the relationship.”

Middle Collegiate Church on Second Avenue in the East Village sent out an email last Thursday announcing that in-person programming at the church would be canceled and all worship services would be moved online. 

Senior Minister Jacqui Lewis said that there was no drop-off in attendance for services at Middle Church in the last couple of weeks and was relatively high for the first couple of weekends in March. 

Lewis said that the virus was definitely on the minds of those in the community who attended the last couple of services and the church made adjustments to how they administered communion, but parishioners were in some ways more enthusiastic about attending those recent services because of the support they provided. Lewis said that it was a difficult call to close the church because so many people told her that it was the one thing helping them deal with all the chaos caused by the pandemic.

“In a way, people were saying that church is my spiritual dam, this will be my way through this anxiety,” she said. “People were looking forward to connecting with each other.”

Marble Collegiate Church moved all of its services to live-streaming only starting on March 15. Senior Minister Michael Bos said in an email that the last few weeks have been surreal, with Broadway shutting down, schools being closed and public events being canceled, but noted that members of the community could still support each other online. 

“In the midst of the physical distance this has created between us, we need to remember that we need each other more than ever,” Bos said. “We are blessed that we can worship together online. We are working on ways for our ministries and groups to meet online so we can support one another. And through it all, our board, pastors, ministry leaders and staff will be providing spiritual, emotional and physical assistance to our community.”

Calvary Church on Gramercy Park also sent a notice to parishioners last Friday, noting that Devotion Groups would be live-streamed and Sunday services would be available on the same platform. In an email to members of the church, Reverend Jacob Smith pointed to the importance of services for those who wish to worship, regardless of whether it is in the church or in their homes. 

Lewis said that she has received multiple messages of positive feedback on the streaming services and hopes that people in the community who need support feel comfortable reaching out. 

“We want to create social distance, not spiritual distance. While the story is changing so fast people are reminded of other epidemics, even people traumatized by Sandy, locally New Yorkers have been through a couple of scares,” Lewis said. “This is something that might traumatize us but reminds us how resilient we are. We know how to be neighbors. Even as we’re socially distancing, we can check on our older neighbors, calling friends and families. There’s a way we can make a web, as Dr. King says, we’re inextricably connected in a web of humanity.”

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