As Passover approached in late March, Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Yale’s Jewish chaplain, recalls thinking about Exodus 12, where the Israelites huddled in their homes in Egypt to protect themselves from the 10th plague, a force of death raging in the world. Exactly one year after the start of the pandemic, the similarity between the biblical Passover story and our world today felt apt. Yet celebrating the holiday under COVID-19 restrictions complicated the notions of how to traditionally observe it.
This is the case for all the religious holidays this spring, including Passover, Easter and Ramadan; the pandemic took away our ability to share physical space and eat, pray and sing together. At a Passover Seder, family and friends gather to read the Exodus story followed by a long meal. Easter too, involves a communal supper after Sunday services, with a week of reflection and prayer commencing on Palm Sunday. Ramadan, the monthlong Muslim fast, which began on April 12, is also deeply community-based. After a day of fasting, people pray at the musalla and come together with friends, family and neighbors for Iftar, the meal after sunset. The pandemic changed the ways Yale communities celebrated these holidays, first in 2020 when we were all at home, and then again this year when students are following social-distancing guidelines together on campus.
In a “normal” pre-pandemic year at Yale, the spring holidays are celebrated with large gatherings. Passover is celebrated with Seders at the Slifka Center and daily prayer services. Last year, when the Yale community was sent home, students were able to hold Seders among family members — and even friends over Zoom. Yet, because life under COVID-19 was so new, there were no guidelines for how to celebrate as a Yale community.
“We held a ‘how to do your own pandemic Seder’ session on Zoom, but there was no actual organized Zoom Seder,” said Rabbi Rubenstein. But Zoom itself was a poor substitute for community — instead, the written word, through the student-run Shibboleth Journal — maintained community bonds. Last year, Dov Greenwood ’22 put together Passover reflection pieces to maintain a sense of connection during the pandemic. It was reissued again this year.
This year, Yale students on campus were able to celebrate Passover together, but in a different way. Instead of large, organized seders, students attended small, outdoor gatherings.
“I attended a Seder organized in Ben Franklin by a friend — we sat outside, used a tent in the courtyard and had a dessert Seder, recreating a family atmosphere,” said Max Heimowitz ’23.
In terms of large, organized events, the only celebration of the kind was a Passover supply distribution at the backyard of Rabbi Alex Ozar and Lauren Steinberg, the OU-Jewish Learning Initiative couple at Yale. Slifka volunteers gave out wine, Haggadahs (Passover Seder books), matzo and frozen meals to Yale community members.
“240 people signed up for Passover food giveaways, and on a normal year, we have around 350 people who either attend our Seders or sign up for Seders-to-go,” explained Rabbi Rubenstein, “meaning the student drop off this year was less than one third, which is less than any other drop off we’ve had during the pandemic.”
Easter at Yale and the weeks leading up to it is the time of lent, a period of reflection, and is the focus of spring semester programming. For many, this is a time to grow closer to their faith and reflect more broadly on their lives. Yale students involved in the Episcopal Church at Yale are encouraged to be baptized if they haven’t yet, and participate in confirmation, which involves gathering for classes. It is also a time for graduating seniors to reflect on their journeys at Yale and to recommit to their faith, as they enter a time of transition.
“The pandemic and the use of Zoom completely changed this —we’ve had to take a different approach to programming,” said Brandon Chambers ’21, congregational council co-chair of the ECY. “Last year, we weren’t prepared at all, as we were new to Zoom,” said Chambers. “We set up a slide show which wasn’t very well organized, but was the best we could do at the time, and had our musical director play his keyboard over Zoom.”
Over the summer, the ECY thought about ways to deal with Zoom worship, including reflective and contemplative slide shows and prerecorded hymns at services. This year, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the ECY held five Zoom services. Saturday’s service was a joint, hybrid event with Trinity Church on the New Haven Green, which included a group of Connecticut’s bishops and priests as well as the Trinity Church’s priest, who were together in person while viewers tuned in virtually. To accommodate this year’s conditions, virtual Easter Sunday services were followed by a series of films shown over Zoom. Replacing the regular communal Sunday supper, ECY sent Grubhub gift cards to Yale students to use while they watched the films. “This year, students are in different living and learning situations, and so while we haven’t been able to have Sunday dinners, we’ve also been able to reach out to a lot of new students who find the Zoom services to be meaningful,” said Chambers.
When it comes to Ramadan, Yale students are accustomed to fasting during the day and then breaking their fast at a designated dining hall, typically at Morse College, which is open later than others. There is a designated table for those six days a week for those observing Ramadan, and on Friday nights, one could typically find a 150-plus person meal at either Battell or Dwight Chapel catered by a local New Haven business. Occasionally, over the weekends, students would have access to a college buttery to make food for each other at night.
Spiritual programming was just as popular — regular Friday evening prayers on campus would consist of around 150 people at the musalla in the basement of Bingham Hall. Last year, Ramadan began on April 23, when all mosques were shut down and nearly everyone was home.
“Some mosques offered digital prayer services, but it was disappointing how spiritually and socially isolating it was,” said Omer Bajwa, director of Muslim life in the Chaplain’s Office at Yale. However, “The fact that people were home with their families to reconnect and celebrate made the holiday manageable,” said Bajwa.
This year, students are separate from their families but cannot come together for large gatherings. Because the dining hall is grab-and-go style, students with meal plans enter at around 7:30 for Iftar and grab a box with their name on it.
“So far this year we’ve consistently done Zoom services on Friday nights, but instead of the typical Muslim service of prayers and sermons, we only do the sermons,” explained Bajwa. “I also teach a Halaqa, a study group, every Monday night which will continue through Ramadan, but we won’t be livestreaming any special prayer services.”
Bajwa noted that the strong community aspect of Ramadan is hard to emulate this year: “Ramadan is also a very intimately personal and spiritual exercise — it is your own experience and no one knows if you’re doing it or not or how tough or easy it is for you.”
While religious groups on campus have faced many external factors that have affected how they can observe their spring holidays, the pandemic posed challenges that have proved the resilience and adaptability of their traditions. “Our faith teaches us to be adaptable — we will learn how to navigate this year’s unique challenges, and it is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to imagine ways to make it meaningful and establish connections between people,” said Bajwa.
Rabbi Rubenstein, when reflecting on the response to this year’s Passover programing noted the tenacity of the memory of Passover. “Jews have held onto it, and it has held onto our community,” he said.
Heimowitz noted how “despite the simming virtual Zoom void, I’ve been floored by all the community efforts here on campus — we send things out there and hope that people show up, and it’s comforting to know that people care.”
In terms of incorporating virtual elements developed throughout the pandemic, religious groups on campus hope to go back to completely normal programming by next year. However, “on a more individual level, our members have gotten closer to each other this year during these difficult times,” said Chambers. “Hopefully this will last for a very long time.”
Julia Levi | firstname.lastname@example.org