Religious institutions adapt to online services during COVID-19 pandemic

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Religious institutions in Berkeley have begun to offer virtual services, and leaders say they have found an increased sense of community support in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Across faiths, churches and synagogues have begun to stream services and other programs online and have organized virtual community bonding activities. The shelter-in-place orders, however, have not been met without challenges for these institutions.

According to Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel, his synagogue has four core initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic: virtual community, emotional support, practical support and financial support. It offers services, classes and social programs online, effectively becoming a “virtual community,” with the clergy using WhatsApp, Zoom and phone calls to engage with its membership.

The synagogue also provides practical support for its community through groups of volunteers who call members and run errands for at-risk individuals. In addition, it offers financial support via an emergency fund, according to Cohen.

Despite its efforts, Cohen said the synagogue still faces challenges, as observing the Sabbath, the synagogue’s holiest and most significant day of communal gathering, includes refraining from the use of technology on Saturdays.

“On the one hand, on Saturdays (Shabbat), we are learning to cultivate an inner spirituality that is independent of communal or social connection,” Cohen said in an email. “On the other hand, during the rest of the week, our presence in each other’s lives (albeit virtually) has grown exponentially.”

Similarly, the Evangel Bible Church of Berkeley has moved its Sunday and Wednesday services and community groups online, but not without initial setbacks. According to Deacon Daniel Cheng, the church was forced to purchase better streaming equipment and upgrade its internet connection by the second week of the shutdown.

Although the church has no central effort related to the pandemic, Cheng said in an email that the church’s community groups conduct weekly “well checks” on individual members and regular attendees to meet any immediate physical needs. These groups have moved from meeting every two weeks to meeting every week, addressing the spiritual needs of the community. The church also has a members-only forum for communication.

“We are currently making plans to do whatever is reasonable to make sure we can meet in a safe way,” Cheng said in the email. “We should not let fear of COVID dampen our enthusiasm for God and love for one another.”

The First Congregational Church of Berkeley has implemented similar protocols.

According to Rev. Kit Novotny, the church has been worshipping exclusively online since March 15. It broadcasts with the help of an audiovisual technician, prerecords many elements and always has at least one pastor live on social media. The church has meetings through Zoom, and a Zoom coffee hour after every Sunday service.

The church also keeps in contact with its members and offers support through “neighborhood groups,” where people meet for Zoom happy hours, deliver toilet paper to one another and more.

Novotny acknowledged that the pandemic has been hard on the church’s congregation, despite its resilience.

“Christianity is an embodied, incarnational faith — we’re so used to being able to hug and sing aloud together, it’s part of the texture of our life together,” Novotny said in an email. “One of the hardest things to grapple with is how long it might be before we can safely sing together.”

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.