A virtual palm parade? Passover via Zoom? Religious groups get creative

With Ramadan, Passover and Easter all happening in April, Berkeley religious communities are adapting to spiritual life during a global pandemic.

Members of First Congregational Church of Berkeley waving palm fronds for Palm Sunday. The congregants filmed themselves and the church put the images into a YouTube video

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Sunday, the First Congregational Church of Berkeley began its annual palm parade. Congregants waved palm fronds from front porches and backyards, accompanied by toddlers and dogs. Young people brandished theirs on trampolines. Others improvised with house plants.

It was Palm Sunday, the day which commemorates Jesus’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Typically, congregants would process through the church’s yard and down Dana Street. This year, of course, that wasn’t possible. So the congregation improvised: they filmed videos of themselves ahead of time to be compiled in time for services, which were streamed online. Church musicians provided accompaniment live, from their own separate homes.

First Congregational, or First Church, as it is also known, is just one of many Berkeley religious communities forced to adapt to the realities of spiritual life during a global pandemic. And with the spring rain that is showering the East Bay in April comes a spate of important holy days. This week is the Christian Holy Week, which spans Palm Sunday to Easter. Passover, which lasts for eight days, began on April 8, and the month of Ramadan will begin on the 24.

At First Congregational, a post-service coffee hour on Zoom utilizes the software’s breakout rooms feature, allowing congregants to meet and catch up in smaller groups. Youth group meets online, and there is an all-ages storytime on Saturdays. Neighborhood captains check in on members of their group each week. And some people who have moved away from Berkeley are now tuning in again.


The congregation has also moved to taking communion every week, rather than once a month. People are encouraged to gather something like bread and something like wine in their homes. Molly Baskette, the lead pastor, describes it as a symbolic communal meal.

“Even though we’re separate, we are together, we are one,” she said “Isolation is the illusion. Communion is the reality.”

Tuli Bennett-Bose, a third-year student at UC Berkeley, often attended Friday prayers — called jummah — on campus.

Typically, Muslims gather in mosques to pray together and hear a sermon on Friday afternoons. Bennett-Bose, who remains in Berkeley in her off-campus house, said she was missing the community aspect of gathering for prayer. One of her housemates is also Muslim, and they pray together on Fridays, though it isn’t quite the same.


“This tradition, and requirement, really, that has happened every week for centuries is not happening in most of the world right now,” she said. “That feels really profound and sad.”

At the Berkeley synagogue Netivot Shalom, Saturday morning Shabbat services have been suspended — and they wouldn’t have been videoed anyway since traditionally observant Jews refrain from using technology on the Sabbath. Instead, the synagogue hosts online services on Friday before sundown and on Saturday evenings as a way for the community to mark the beginning and end of the Sabbath together.

Rabbi Chai Levy explained that the decision was made in part to combat technology fatigue. “We’re all kind of Zoomed out by the end of the week,” she said. But the synagogue is still providing links to other online Saturday Shabbat services for members who might want to attend from their homes.

On Passover, which began Wednesday night, Jews usually gather with family to eat, pray, and retell the story of Exodus, when the biblical Jews left slavery in Egypt. This year, the holiday is looking a little different: there will be no grandparents flying in for the occasion, or even visits from nearby relatives and friends.

Florence Lewis, a member of Congregation Beth El, usually celebrates the holiday with her two children and their families on the East Coast. This year, she and her husband will be staying put, but still plan on attending their kids’ seder virtually. Lewis has also made a chocolate almond cake which she plans on delivering to her friends nearby — while keeping a safe distance, of course.

Levy looked to liturgy to help make sense of celebrating Passover this way. She references the word “mitzrayim” — the Hebrew word for Egypt, which literally means “the narrow place.”


“It says in the Haggadah that you’re supposed to elaborate on the story,” she said, referring to the book Jews use to recount the story of Exodus. “You’re supposed to elaborate on the story and to talk about all the ways that God has brought us from a narrow place to an expansive place. Telling that story restores our faith that redemption is possible,” she said.

The interior of the McGee Avenue Baptist Church. Services have been suspended because of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: McGee Avenue Baptist Church

Reverend Michael Smith of the McGee Avenue Baptist Church found similar lessons in thinking about Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ. “We generally, in the mainstream, don’t want to talk about death,” he said. But to talk about resurrection, death is unavoidable. And McGee wants people to think about it at a time when death feels closer than it did before — death that includes, he added, the loss of livelihoods or homes.

“How do we as people of faith,” he said, “do not gloss over, do not romanticize, while also embracing it to prepare for what it means for life on the other side.”

The anxiety and fear of living through a pandemic — combined with extra time stuck at home for some, and the loneliness of shelter-in-place — seem to be leading some to turn towards faith.

Not all places of worship are adapting to the times: the Bethlehem Temple Word of Faith Apostolic Church in Berkeley, for example, appears to have continued to host services that congregants attend in person at its building multiple times a week, most recently on April 2. These services are streamed online; in one sermon, Bishop Marcus Burns told congregants that many people in his circles are urging him not to host services.

“And I’m not speaking low because we don’t want the police to hear,” he said. “I’m here to tell you, we know he’ll be here.”

Berkeley police have been reaching out to places like Bethlehem Temple Church to discuss the shelter-in-place order, according to Officer Byron White of the Berkeley Police Department. No one has been fined for violating the order yet as the police hope conversations about social distancing will encourage people to voluntarily comply. Bethehem did not respond to Berkeleyside’s requests for comment.

But most houses of worship are making religious services work, albeit in new forms. Anecdotally, spiritual leaders report that attendance at many weekly online services is up, sometimes significantly. And in a time that is not just spiritually but economically challenging, many are turning towards service as a way to feel connected to others.

Bennett-Bose said that when she thinks about what Ramadan will look like when it begins at the end of the month, she hopes she can incorporate charity, and potentially provide food to people who need it. Typically, mosques serve daily iftar meals — meals to break fast — for free during Ramadan.

Members of Berkeley Masjid breaking a Ramadan fast together in 2018. Photo: Berkeley Masjid

During Ramadan, the Berkeley Masjid would typically host up to a couple of hundred people to break fast each night with food ordered from local restaurants.

Gamil Serag, one of the executive committee members of the masjid, said it was planning on providing meals on an individual basis to people who need them this year, both during Ramadan and on Friday afternoons, though there doesn’t to be a way to get around the loss of the communal aspect of sharing a meal. But Serag also emphasized the importance of forming bonds with neighboring places of worship during the pandemic. “Because we are all in the end trying to serve the communities and to be pleasing to God,” he said.

Adam Weisberg, the executive director of Urban Adamah in Berkeley, emphasized the need to resist the tendency for fear and sadness to turn to anger.

“How do I make sure that when I do go to the grocery, when somebody sneezes, instead of pulling back from them and making them feel like a pariah, I say ‘bless you’?” he said.

Urban Adamah usually hosts a free farm stand on Wednesdays for people experiencing food scarcity. Now, the three-person farm team — considered essential because they produce and distribute food — is distributing the produce to four Berkeley synagogues which, in turn, deliver the food to homebound seniors in their congregations.

At the McGee Avenue church, which also operates an urban garden and soup kitchen, meal service has been expanded thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Foundation. The church can now serve lunch every day and dinner twice a week. Meals are served to go, and the church’s Wednesday food pantry has moved outdoors. Facilitators take precautions with masks and gloves.

Florence Lewis, who made the Passover cake to share with her friends, also facilitates a poetry group on Shabbat afternoons. It has moved online, though it functions fairly similarly as it does in person, Lewis said. Group members read a psalm from the morning’s Torah study session, and later a modern poem translated from Hebrew or Yiddish. They discuss the poems as a group, working through their meanings together, Lewis said.

“Somehow, we figure out what’s going on, all together.”