NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Exercising social distancing has proven to be an effective defense against the spread of coronavirus COVID-19.
But it's not necessarily good for the soul, say religious leaders across New Brunswick.
“What I’m sensing from people is they need connection more than ever,” said Senior Pastor Cynthia Stouffer of the United Methodist Church of New Brunswick.
Stouffer and other religious leaders across the city continue to try to provide spirituality and service without the physical proximity.
That’s no small task, when you consider churches are typically filled Sunday mornings with parishioners offering each other the Sign of Peace and synagogue services require a minyan of 10 Jews to say Mourner’s Kaddish.
The city’s religious leaders such as Rabbi Philip Bazeley from Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple on Livingston Avenue are turning to technology as a way to continue to bring congregants together in a world where an invisible virus is forcing them to stand apart.
Bazeley said that the synagogue is using Zoom to connect with religious school students and Facebook Live to stream services, song sessions, book readings and arts and crafts projects.
About 600 people viewed the Friday night services and 400 viewed the Havdalah services. There have been 200 views on Wednesday’s Facebook Live song session.
Stouffer said that due to renovation of the church’s sanctuary, her congregation has been livestreaming every service. The church is now livestreaming services from their Fellowship Hall.
“Every morning, we do 15 minutes on Facebook Live and then we also put it on YouTube and we also put it on our website,” she said. “It’s a time of prayer and devotion … Sometimes, we get as many as 300 views.”
Stouffer said their Bible studies are also being livestreamed through Zoom and that they are working on doing a study on Psalms.
Finding ways to connect in a world that becomes more isolated every day is crucial, said John Farmer Jr., director of Rutgers’ Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience.
“Fortunately, we live in a world where those kinds of barriers can be overcome through many different kinds of technology,” he said. “I think what you’re seeing around the country is different faiths resorting to television, to social media and to other forms of technology to overcome the barriers that are posed by social distancing.”
He also said that it is important that religious leaders think of creative ways to overcome the inability to host large social gatherings and that they keep providing spiritual guidance.
“The community exists regardless of whether it’s physically present in one room or whether it’s constituted over WebEx or Zoom or any number of platforms that are able to bring people together,” Farmer said.
Beyond hosting religious ceremonies and community projects, technology is allowing houses of worship to continue to serve the community.
For Jews, who are commanded in the Torah to perform 613 acts called mitzvot – such as giving to charity or observing the sabbath – social distancing presents a problem. How do you carry out, say, the mitzvah of visiting the elderly and the sick?
“Our board of directors and volunteers all have the list of the entire congregation. We just divided it up. Every week, we’re calling in to check in to see how everybody’s doing,” Bazeley said. “We have our coordinating volunteer services for those who are stuck in the house and can’t go out because they’re at risk, so we’re going to do shopping and food deliveries for them.”