I’m not usually able to attend a Shabbat service on Friday nights, or the Havdalah service that closes the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. My family was, it seemed, always busy with something else.
Yet, for the past few weeks, I’ve tried to do one or the other, or both, albeit in a virtual world.
It’s been a spiritually and emotionally draining time for many of us. Even on our darkest days during and after past tragedies — from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to superstorm Sandy, we were able to gather, to hug, to be shoulders to cry on.
None of that is possible as the coronavirus pandemic explodes through New York, the epicenter of the national outbreak. Not being able to be with one another — physically — has been trying. Now, any opportunity to commune, from reading bedtime stories to acting in a theatrical production to a teen sleepover, must be done by phone or online.
That lack of communal and physical contact will be particularly poignant as one of the holiest times of the year for Christians and Jews approaches.
Typically, Jewish families would be crowding together around a Seder table this Wednesday night, as Passover begins. Needless to say, this night will be different from all other nights.
And Sunday marks the start of Holy Week for Christians around the world. Those who celebrate Palm Sunday will make do without the traditional Mass and palms. Good Friday and Easter will come without the usual gatherings, services and meals.
But there is a way to instill spirituality, and even togetherness, at a time of separation. At my synagogue’s recent online Friday evening service, nearly 80 people gathered to welcome in the Sabbath together. The singing, the prayer, the faces attentive, each from their own safe socially distanced spot, were still meaningful. Then, Saturday night, some of us gathered again, to celebrate the end of the Sabbath. A ceremony that’s contingent on our senses, Havdalah involves candlelight, wine, and spices. So, we each held our hands up to our tiny videocameras to see the shadows, and took a big breath in to smell the spices, as the cantor sang and the rabbi strummed his guitar. At the end, those among us in mourning said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and dozens of us responded — each from our own homes — with an “Amen.”
It was a breathtaking moment to watch our community come together, at least by screen.
As the holidays approach this week, it’s possible to keep our spiritual and communal connections even as we must distance ourselves. To anyone who thinks otherwise, and is planning prayer services or holiday meals in tight quarters, just don’t. The growing number of coronavirus cases and deaths emerging in our communities should be reason enough.
None of what we’re doing now replaces what is missing — the hug or a handshake, the closeness we as humans need at our saddest and happiest moments. But as this week of religious celebration begins, we can still find the contact we crave. In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll need to hang on to that, to keep our senses attuned to the shadows, the smells, and one another’s voices, even as we wait to touch one another again.
Then, one day, months from now, when we’re back at the usual busyness of our lives, we must remember to make the connections we’re so desperately searching for now.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board.