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Faith Leaders Cautious But Hopeful For Spring Holidays

Temple Beth-El in Richmond's Museum District. (Photo: David Streever/VPM News)

*VPM news intern Joi Bass reported this story

Last March, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide executive order closing non-essential businesses and banning public gatherings of more than 10 people, including places of worship.

That decision was challenged in court by Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague, which filed a lawsuit against the governor claiming their constitutional rights were being violated.

The effort was backed by the Department of Justice, but was dismissed by a federal judge.

In Virginia, the closure occurred just before Passover was set to begin. Also known as Pesach in Hebrew, the holiday commemorates the liberation of the Jews and their exodus from Egypt.

Rabbi Michael Knopf, a member of the clergy at Temple Beth-El in Richmond, says it was a tough decision to shut down his synagogue.

“It was really painful and challenging because Judaism, like so many faith traditions, is really about community, but community coming together,” Knopf said.

The switch from in-person to virtual presented other challenges too.

“On the Jewish Sabbath and holidays traditionally, observant Jews tend not to use electronics and not use technology,” Knopf said.

Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented, he says his congregation was able to make the best of it.

“I think we mitigated that sense of loss because our programming was still vibrant,” Knopf said.

Knopf adds they were able to provide many virtual resources for their congregants to help them host the ritual meal Seder through Zoom.

Celebrating Passover this year will be different, Knopf said: “In some ways it’s better off than the way we celebrated it last year because now a lot of folks have been vaccinated and are able to get together like they did in the past.”

The pastor of First Baptist of South Richmond, Rev. Dr. Derik Jones, says it was hard to learn that churches had to close their doors last year.

“It was an uncertain time,” he said. “It was a time where we really had to ask God questions about how he would have us move forward and what he wanted us to do.”

The loss of in-person connections was especially hard on his congregation.

“Church and being a part of ministry is such a large piece of the pie of people’s lives,” Jones said. “Many of their friends are at church, their long standing relationships are at church, and to be in a situation where you cannot physically have that is disappointing.”

He emphasized the importance Easter has for Christians, especially in the Black community.

“We get dressed for church, we created Sunday best, the frilly dresses and the bow ties, and the pastel colors, you look forward to those cultural things that go along with the resurrection season,” Jones said.

They had to make a hasty shift to a virtual celebration last year, but Jones says it left them better prepared for this year’s virtual celebration.

“We have a better understanding of what it would feel like to have to celebrate the high time of the Christian calendar in a virtual space,” he said.

Jones said they’re still being cautious: “Obviously the vaccination process is in full swing, but we’re still being extremely judicious.”

While the pandemic has presented challenges, it has also shown the testament of their faith, Jones said.

“It’s caused people to have to carve out their own space and time with God and to create their own opportunities to spend time with God and to strengthen their faith.”

The observation of Passover ends on April 4, which is also the same day as Easter for many Christians this year. Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter on May 2.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.