Faith intertwined: Virtual religious services prove essential for connections

October 18, 2020 — by Selina Chen
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Rabbi Dana Magat of Temple Emanu-El San Jose gives a few remarks to kick off Jewish calendar year 5781’s Rosh Hashanah Service on Sept. 18.

From Zoom meetings to YouTube live streams, religious communities keep their bonds in a year when large in-person celebrations are canceled or significantly altered.

Every Friday afternoon, junior Sarah Khokhar joins a Zoom session hosted by West Valley Muslim Association to watch an imam, an Islamic religious leader, deliver a lecture. But because Jummah, a congregational Friday prayer, requires at least 50 followers to be gathered in person under normal circumstances, Khokhar must replace this prayer with Dhuhr, a normal lunchtime prayer.

Khokhar is one of 250 million religious Americans, 57 percent of whom have had their religious services transitioned online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC has issued guidelines for places of worship while pointing out that in accordance with the First Amendment, the federal government may not prescribe standards for communities of faith.

Despite the Trump administration’s call for the reopening of all places of worship back in May, many states have passed restrictions or guidelines. California is strongly recommending remote religious services and asking places of worship to avoid offering food and beverages, discontinue indoor singing and modify practices that require direct or indirect physical contact such as kissing a common object.

In this unprecedented time, Saratoga High students of different faiths are attending their religious services in various remote formats instead of in person, finding innovative ways to connect with their communities online and keep their faith alive.


Moving the mosque online

Before the pandemic, Khokhar attended Saturday classes in which she learned more about Islam. There were also game nights, when children and teens played games and listened to talks from the Imams, and community nights, when 100 to 150 attendees gathered at a hall and invited guest speakers to lecture. In addition, Khokhar attended the West Valley Muslim Association’s (WVMA) annual fundraising banquet that often gathered more than 1,000 people.

In fact, Khokhar was an avid organizer of these events just like the rest of her family members: Her aunt is the main supervisor for the banquet and community nights while her mother teaches a class on Arabic and certain Islamic Studies for women.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, however, religious congregations essentially shut down and then went on a state waitlist to see when they could reopen in some form. At this point gatherings are limited to 12 people for those institutions that have gotten approvals — as is the case for Khokhar’s mosque. Those who cannot be present at the WVMA’s mosque attend congregations over Zoom instead.

“I miss being at the mosque because I have a lot of friends with whom I would hang out and sit with,” Khokhar said. “But I'm glad at least we are able to go on Zoom and continue to learn about Islam.”

Among the benefits of the past few months has been a more flexible schedule for daily prayers. Each day, Khokhar prays five times — at 6 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. In-person school had interfered with her 1 p.m. prayer, so Khokhar often went to CASSY or the Wellness Center at that time to pray. These days, she can do the prayers from home.

Another complication of the pandemic was that Ramadan occurred during April of this year. Khokhar’s family still fasted, but they weren't able to go to their mosque and join other people for Ramadan’s nightly prayers.

The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr, a big celebration in which, under normal circumstances, everyone would go to the mosque to have a lecture, prayers and food. This year, Khokhar’s family still dressed up and had their own feast, but the lecture was held over Zoom.

Despite the difficult times, the Islamic community maintains their connection, Khokhar said. During the SCU and CZU fires in the late summer, for example, they prayed a specific prayer to call for rain, known as Salat al Istasqa.

“In the Islamic community we've united through prayers for each other,” Khokhar said. “We've had people from our community pass away from COVID. We've had people that I know who are stuck in those fires, so we've been connecting a lot through prayers.”


An unprecedented beginning to the Jewish New Year

Other religious communities have also seen significant adjustments to their traditions. Junior Samantha Weisner and her family tuned in to Temple Emanu-El’s Rosh Hashanah Service on a YouTube livestream. They watched as Rabbi Dana Magat, clad in robes and standing in front of two sets of candles, gave a few remarks. Then a choir whose videos are synchronized sang a series of Jewish hymns.

Weisner recalled how before the spread of the coronavirus, her synagogue, Temple Emanu-El San Jose, would rent out Campbell’s Heritage Theatre every Jewish New Year to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. The synagogue also used to have services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

Now, the services are held over Zoom, with the Oneg, a festivity that usually involves appetizers and desserts, done in smaller breakout rooms.

“It's definitely a little less personal,” Weisner said. “A huge part of Judaism is hearing other people's voices and getting to meet them. Even though the services now are not as connected as they used to be, I appreciate that the leaders are doing their best.”

On Sept. 27, Weisner fasted for 24 hours for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. But instead of having a big celebration to break the fast, her family gathered with some friends in the park — socially distanced — and had a meal.

Even though the services now do not connect people the way they used to, Weisner said that the friends she made through religion are the people she can always go to, especially during quarantine. Religion has always given her a strong sense of community, she said. 


Imagining a future of services through technology

Across the street from Saratoga High School stands the Saratoga campus of Menlo Church. But now, only green lawn signs that say Spread Hope can be seen instead of those who would attend their two weekly services.

Like the services of other religions, Menlo Church has moved entirely online, said Julie Gerughty, the director of student ministries. The church streams three services per week at the most popular times, using platforms like Life Church and Facebook Live.

Menlo Church is also keeping the community engaged through monthly mission projects in which members would collect supplies such as backpacks and hygiene kits for donations.

“In a time when people are isolated and have lost hope, community and connection really help your mental health,” Gerughty said. “Believing in Jesus and God, in my case, and believing that there are people who want to care for me gives me hope.”

Senior Wilson Fung, who attends Lord’s Grace Christian Church in Mountain View, said that faith is supporting him during the pandemic.

Fung’s church has set up camera equipment at church to livestream the worship team delivering services in English, Chinese and Cantonese. The church is also incorporating new events such as creating fun videos that feature what families are doing during quarantine, he said.

“The pandemic has probably brought us closer with one another as a community,” he said.

In early October, Fung went back to church to support his friend’s baptism, which got postponed from its original date of Easter Sunday in April. Because his friend was the only person comfortable with in-person baptism, she could invite 20 people, he said.

Fung believes the online format makes it easier to invite new members because it disregards concerns of distance or parental commitments. He also said that his church could maintain the live-streaming after the pandemic is over so that services are more accessible.

“When members grow up to be college students or young adults and move away, they might want to tune in to our church,” Fung said. “Your home church is always special, giving a different feeling from other churches.”

Gerughty agrees on the importance of a hybrid model. She thinks that some perishoners will not be going back to church in the years ahead, instead preferring to watch the services on their own terms, as the video analytics suggest that many members are tuning in on weekdays. 

“Our faith is what brings us together,” Gerughty said. “There are amazing people in the world, but to have a bond of faith, to me, is different from being on a sports team together: Teammates have a great camaraderie, but there is something different about having your faiths intertwine.”

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