As Easter and Passover approach, two Halifax religious leaders reflect on how the faithful have carried on through the pandemic

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onviction hasn’t made local faith groups and worshippers immune to the uncertainty, grief, and joy everyone has experienced in the past year.

For local churches, the reality of COVID-19 hit home last Easter, when houses of worship were quiet during one of the holiest times on the Christian calendar.  

“It came as a shock, probably as it did to many people,” recalls Anglican Bishop Sandra Fyfe, who oversees churches in Nova Scotia and P.E.I. “It was a very short time between being able to limit what we could do in our buildings in terms of worship to not being able to be in our buildings at all.”

Church leaders had to rethink everything.

“This was something that is going to require us to invest in new ideas and new ways of thinking about how we gather, how we pray, how we care for one another, then they [parishioners] started to do the kind of work to enable that to happen,” Fyfe says. “As people recognized we were in this for the duration, there was more of an investment in technology, clarity around which platforms were the best for which type of ministry and an opportunity to engage people beyond the local congregation. People were surprised at who was watching or worshipping or praying with them.”

By using multiple social and streaming platforms, worshippers were able to connect across the province and around the world, even teaming up for choirs. Streaming services and recording events made them more accessible. Some churches continued to offer scaled-down services, including drive-through options, while others created a newsletter to keep parishioners informed.

“Geography doesn’t have to be that barrier that it seems to be,” Fyfe says. “People have reached out to care for one another; we have far more requests from people wanting to offer help to people who needed it and this desire to look after one another. People wanted to be of service to one another and make sure people did not feel forgotten. They knew the church cared about them, the community cared about them. They knew they were still held in the love of Christ even though they couldn’t be physically together.”

Rabbi Yakov Kerzner. Photo: Submitted

This is also a season of reflection for Halifax’s Jewish community. The pandemic’s onset occurred right after the Jewish celebration of Purim and a few weeks before Passover. Rabbi Yakov Kerzner of the Modern Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue says Passover was hard last year—family and community are at the heart of observances.

“Passover last year was really difficult for many people because it created a situation where families were not able to get together,” he says. “All the synagogues were closed, and very few people had anyone over at their house; it caused isolation. Last year for Passover, my wife cooked up small meals for several people, and I delivered it all over town to help create that feeling of people are there for you, but it’s not the same.”

After Passover, the synagogue adapted to their new normal and became equipped to do Zoom services. The rabbi taught classes over the new platform, and the synagogue held panel discussions. On the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews don’t used electricity or operate machines, so Saturday and holiday services were out.

But there were also new opportunities.

 “We could almost expand our programming because it’s easier to get someone on a Zoom call than to get them to Halifax,” Kerzner explains. “There was a benefit to the programming, but it still removed a lot of the socialization which takes place, which was very difficult for our synagogue because it’s a small synagogue. After Saturday services, we have a Kiddush, a small meal, and that’s where people get together. We have speakers, and socialization is more important than the service.”

It was a hard year for Kerzner. In April 2020, his father-in-law died from COVID-19 at a nursing home in Boston. Then his father died in Toronto in November, after seeing two of his sons marry their wives in the summer. The family couldn’t mourn or celebrate in the traditional manner, but Kerzner looks forward.

“We consider ourselves lucky what we had was isolation, the need for social distancing but not sickness and death,” he says. “We had a tough year, but we went on with life … You start to appreciate what you have so much more when it’s not a given. What’s important are the people closest to you; you could have these experiences and celebrations on a small scale and appreciate the marriage rather than the ceremony … Those are the things that draw people together, and we all learn from that, especially during times of hardship.”

As a rabbi and from his personal experience, Kerzner felt that the process of grieving was limited and restrictive. Normally he would have observed a seven-day mourning period called a Shiva, with many visitors and services at the house.

With gathering limits, the rabbi would either complete services by phone or in person at the synagogue.

“The community did suffer, when people did pass away (not from COVID), funerals were very limited,” he says. “In the beginning, we only had a handful of people at the funeral, and it makes it much more difficult to go through the grieving process and the feeling that the community is there for you when they have a hard time gathering and especially in Jewish mourning.”

Bishop Sandra Fyfe. Photo: Paul Sherwood/The Diocesan Times

Fyfe says her Anglican congregation also struggled to continue with specific rituals and sacraments that brought comfort to mourners, particularly after the mass shooting.

“It was incredibly challenging knowing there may be people that we are missing—how do we reach out to them?” Fyfe says. “It was really hard because you couldn’t have the people there that you might have liked to have had.”

Spring brings renewal, but as the anniversary of the shoot approaches, the grief remains.

“It’s still lovely, but it isn’t kind of the way you hoped it would be,” Fyfe says. “We’re still dealing with some of the after-effects of those lost moments and lost opportunities.”

During the coming holidays, both leaders encourage people to look for opportunities that promote hope and optimism.

“We’re managing, and one of the things we see is the resilience that people have,” Kerzner says. “As time goes on, we realize we’re able to cope and learn to cope. It is important to reach out to isolated people. These people don’t have the opportunity to come to services … It’s important to reach out to those people to call them to stop by and visit if possible for a few moments. People should be aware that no one is forgotten.”

Easter marks the resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible. That message of rebirth means even more to Fyfe this year.

“We are asking people to look for signs of that, to not despair,” she says. “There is new life, and we’re starting to feel a sense of hopefulness with the roll-out of the vaccine program in Nova Scotia. [We have] the opportunity to feel witness to that hope and to look for ways to invite other people to experience that. We’re living in a time when people are sometimes struggling with what’s happening through this pandemic.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Halifax Magazine stories looking at how faith communities have weathered the pandemic. To suggest a topic, email the editor.

Halifax Magazine