MAHOPAC, N.Y. - As Mahopac continues to shelter in place during the pandemic, local churches and synagogues continue to search for ways to tend to their flocks, hold services, deliver their spiritual messages and find fellowship in an era where social distancing has made that incredibly challenging.

Many are taking advantage of the internet and social media to spread the word and to stay connected, and some have found other innovative ways to overcome.

Mahopac News spoke with local clergy to find out how they are rising to the occasion and keeping hope alive.

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Rev. Casey Carbone, First Presbyterian Church of Mahopac

Rev. Casey Carbone of the First Presbyterian Church of Mahopac is one of those clergymen who have embraced technology to connect with his parishioners and share services with them.

“We are broadcasting [services] on YouTube and Facebook,” he said. “We have a call-in method for people who are not as tech-savvy, and they can listen in. A lot of our older members have been able to do it. Some don’t have a good internet connection or no internet at all, so this works for them.”

Carbone also uses Zoom to hold a “coffee hour” with his congregants just as a way to socialize and increase fellowship.

“We talk with each other and just hearing how hard life is right now and so disruptive, it brings you into unfamiliar territory,” he said. “We joke that it still feels like Lent—there’s a wilderness mentality. Even for myself, there is a weariness of being in isolation and trying to find ways to be connected.”

Carbone said some parishioners are struggling with finances and others are on the front line of battling COVID-19. It makes for stressful times when they need God the most. He tries to deliver a message that addresses those fears.

“I often talk about Book of Psalms because they are an honest reflection of both joy and the hardship of life,” he said. “We talk about where we can experience God in these moments. Everyone knows Psalm 23—’The Lord is my shepherd…’ I feel like hope and transformation are big themes for me during this time. We have given up a lot, but it shows the new realities we can live with—local outreach opportunities, working with local food banks.”

Unable to pass the collection plate each Sunday, many churches are facing a financial crisis of their own. The Presbyterian Church has a hall it rents out for events and has lost income since there are currently no events to host.

“Financially, building usage is a big hit,” Carbone said. “We have various groups that use our building, and now that extra source of income we don’t have anymore. But people are finding ways to contribute. And our large national church has provided resources to ease our needs and help our congregation. We have been able to make payroll even for our small staff to make sure they have income.”

Carbone said one of his biggest challenges was communion. A pastor can’t serve communion virtually.

“It comes down to theology,” he said. “For us, it’s more symbolic. We have encouraged people to create sacred spaces in their homes and serve themselves or serve each other.”

Rabbi Sarah Freidson, Temple Beth Shalom

“I feel like this moment calls for reimagining what it means to be a leader,’ said Rabbi Sarah Freidson of Temple Beth Shalom. “My workload has shifted. I’ve been sending out regular emails providing Jewish resources they can do on their own. In a way, now I am a curator getting info out to people. I have been posting a lot on social media—hopefully, content that will add value for people.”

Freidson has also filmed videos from home. Most of them are brief, but she did create one with a long service.

“I have been trying to call everyone in the congregation,” she said. “Speak with them one on one to see if they need anything. Seniors are getting more frequent check-ins. I have offered two regular Zoom meetings a week.”

She also created Coffee Break with Rabbi Sarah on Zoom on Tuesday mornings.

“We just talk for 30 to 40 minutes to help with the loneliness and isolation,” she said.

She also holds a Pre-Shabbat Schmooze on Friday evenings.

“I’m just checking in,” she said of the Schmooze. “I bring a lesson of some sort or a quote that I think might be helpful and light Shabbat candles and sing a little—all via Zoom. We include prayers for healing and support for those on the front line.”

While her Christian counterparts have been using online platforms to hold services for months now, that presents a bit of a challenge to Freidson. Many Jews who strictly observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) refrain from using electrical devices on that day, with the exception of passive enjoyment of devices that were set up before Shabbat. It is that exception that Freidson wants to take advantage of.

“When this first started with sheltering in place, I did not anticipate how long it would be before we were back to normal,” she said. “In the last couple of weeks, my understanding has shifted. People miss and need the religious services we provide. After seeking out the wisdom of colleagues about how to do that in a way that does not cross the boundaries and not violate Shabbat, I am trying to put the pieces in place. It involves setting up the technology before the Sabbath, so it is ready to go.”

Freidson said that throughout the pandemic, she has tried to extend several messages to her congregation to help them through.

“I emphasize several things,” she said. “One is resilience. Abraham had 10 tests, or trials, and withstood them all. He stood back up. Another is gratitude. When we are taken from our usual lives, we get to look at who we are with fresh eyes. Health and family and connections are so much more important. We can appreciate the people in our lives, even more, when can’t see them. It’s gratitude for the gift of life and gift of health.”

Freidson said that, thankfully, no one at Temple Beth Shalom has been diagnosed with the virus yet, or lost someone close to them, but she knows it’s a possibility.

“It is really hard to be able to mourn,” she said. “How do we create rituals to let people mourn?”

Father Philip Caruso, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church

While all church services have been canceled for the duration of the pandemic, Catholics can still watch Mass on television. St. Patrick’s Cathedral streams services online on Sundays at 10:15 a.m. and weekdays and Saturday Masses are live at 7 a.m.

Father Philip Caruso of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Mahopac says services can also be found on Verizon cable channels 48, 285 and 295. He and his fellow priests at St. John’s say Mass privately almost every day.

Caruso also places the parish bulletin on the church’s website.

“I write a little something about the gospel and post it,” he said. “The bulletin is mostly spiritual. And we have ‘flock notes’ that we send to parishioners to pray for someone sick or who has died.”

Caruso said his duties have expanded beyond the spiritual since the pandemic came along.

“The staff can’t enter the rectory,” he said. “So, I sit in the office and answer phones and open mail. We can’t go to the hospital or nursing homes; they won’t let us in.”

He said they still perform funeral services, but they must be done graveside and with limited attendance.

He said his congregation has remained fairly upbeat throughout the crisis even though they can’t be together in person.

“We are spiritually binding ourselves to each other,” he said. “We do whatever we can to uplift the people. We have wonderful volunteers to take care of our food pantry. We do whatever we can to keep the spirits up. We have a prayer garden, and everyone is welcome to go there and meditate. You don’t have to be Catholic. You don’t even have to believe in God. You can just go there to meditate.”

Caruso said that for parishioners who are struggling during the lockdown, he tries to extend a message of hope.

“There are expressions of fear, helplessness, but at the same time there is hope and I try to instill that because the Lord is with us and we have faith and trust in Him.”

With no live services in which to collect donations, Caruso said that his parishioners have still found a way to give.

“They are mailing in their donations, and they are dropping them in a mail slot at the parish house,” he said. “So, we’ve been holding our own. I haven’t been asking for money because I don’t know the situation. Some people are out of work. But there is a good spirit even with this all going on. People are realizing the importance of being together and family.”

Pastor Brian McIntyre, Lakeview Community Church

Pastor Brian McIntyre of Lakeview Community Church in Carmel Hamlet had wanted to broadcast his services via social media for a long time. The COVID-19 crisis helped expedite that.

“It was something we wanted to do but was never a priority. But when things went on lockdown, we got up and running very quickly,” he said. “It’s creating a little normalcy for people—they look forward to it. It’s at least a little bit what it was like before, except now they are in their pajamas! Creating that connection has been a success. [The congregation is] thankful for the option but can’t wait to gather together.”

McIntyre said his biggest challenge stems from the fact that his church has been built on relationships, which can be hard to maintain if no one can come out of their house.

“But church is about the people, not the place. Our assistant pastor is on social media accounts and interacting with the comments. We’ve had lots of activity with people giving hellos and online hugs. That’s helped quite a bit.”

Before the pandemic, Lakeview Community Church held small Life Groups in congregants’ homes. Now, they are done via Zoom meetings.

“We also have daily Facebook live meetings and noon devotionals—a live teaching, and people can reply to that.”

Like his fellow clergy, McIntyre is trying to deliver a message of hope in his online sermons.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about when things will get back to the ‘new’ normal and what will it look like and that can turn into anxiety,” he said. “So, I talk a lot about hope. We have also experienced a loss in our congregation, and I try to help people process grieving in isolation. Take time to process it and work through it and not ignore it. It’s OK to not be OK.”

McIntyre said that before the pandemic and social distancing rules, we took the gift of gathering for granted.

“It’s easy to take people for granted and think that that connection will always be there,” he said. “We are helping people appreciate what a gift relationships are and how important the people are in our lives and not substituting things for people.”

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