The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland is offering virtual Masses during Holy Week. Courtesy photo

BATH — Ever since religious venues suspended regular services because of the coronavirus outbreak, the faithful of all religions have been forced to embrace a new definition of “faith community” – one that involves teleconferencing software, online forums, video-sharing services, social networking and other methods of virtual communication.

Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor, of Beth Israel Congregation in Bath, said at first it came as a blow when in-person services ended on March 15.

“Jewish life is inherently communal,” she said.

That’s why she is working to present services online, even more often than she used to conduct services in person. Right now, she said, the community offers weekly Friday night services and Saturday morning Torah studies online, even though prior to March 15 the congregation only presented the services and studies twice a month.

“We want to have more opportunities for contact,” she said.

Vinikoor also noted she presided over a virtual bar mitzvah recently, and is encouraging members to stay connected virtually, even though they can’t be together physically.


“I think religious communities have an essential role to play in helping to ground people,” she said.

Marilyn Weinberg, the congregation’s president, said she was struck by how positive the community has remained in the face of isolation and separation.

“I have been surprised at how connected we are online,” she said.

She witnessed the community’s kindness firsthand nearly three weeks ago, after she lost a relative to an illness. While unrelated to COVID-19, Weinberg said  concerns about public gatherings already meant she was only able to attend a small graveside service in Philadelphia. Worse, she said she came home to sit shiva, referring to the week-long mourning period that is traditional in Jewish culture. Usually, such an event is marked by friends and well-wishers coming to visit during that time, but worries about the spread of coronavirus made that impossible.

Nevertheless, Weinberg said Vinikoor helped arrange virtual shiva-related services for her online, leading to what she called “an outpouring of love” from her friends and fellow congregation members.

“It has been a surprisingly positive experience,” she said.


Those of other faiths are also adapting in the face of unprecedented times.

The Rev. Philip Tracy, pastor of the Parish of the Holy Eucharist, which includes Falmouth, Yarmouth, Gray and Freeport, came up with a particularly unique way to handle parishioners wishing to give confessions. He said he saw examples of parishes elsewhere doing what he calls “drive-through confessions” and implemented the same concept locally.

Tracy said he sits in his car at a pre-announced location and time, and people can come to speak with him, often without even getting out of their own vehicles. He still uses partitions and cloths to maintain the privacy and anonymity of the parishioners, much like the screen between two booths does in a traditional church setting.

“Pope Francis was very clear that we were to go to where the people are, and to think in new ways,” he said.

Catherine Gentile, who has been attending services at the parish for more than 30 years, said she just tried the concept last Saturday, speaking with a different priest in the parish. She prefers to speak face to face, and that was allowed too, albeit at proper distance.

“At first, I thought the idea was awful,” she said, but she later admitted “It was actually a lovely experience.”


She said she wasn’t the only one who liked the idea.

“When I left, there was a line of cars behind me,” she said.

Tracy said he thinks the presence of a line of people waiting provides an unusual source of hope for those who might feel isolated from the church.

“It’s visible – people can see it,” he said. “Hopefully people can see that we’re trying to meet people’s needs.”

Tracy said he, too, is live streaming services. While he calls it “the next best thing” to being in person, he admits that even he has trouble getting used to it.

“It’s hard to say Mass with no one there,” he said. “You’re looking at a camera. There’s no energy.”


Gentile also said online services aren’t the same, but it does give her a sense that the church, and the community she has come to love that goes with it, are still there.

“You realize you’re not alone,” she said.

For Muslims, the lack of in-person services are particularly impactful.

At the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland, which serves as the largest mosque in the area, Director Ahmed Abdirahman said regular prayer services during the week can be held virtually, but like many other religious groups, it is hardly ideal.

“It’s better than nothing, yes, but we don’t feel like it’s nearly good enough,” he said.

Regular Friday prayer services, the most important regular service for a Muslim to attend, require gatherings in person, and cannot be held online, Abdirahman said. Also, Islam’s annual Ramadan celebration, which runs from the last week of April to the last week of May, also mandates gatherings in person.

Worst of all, Abdirahman said, are funeral rites. Islam requires the dead to be buried within 24 hours, with a series of ceremonies leading up the burial, and funerals also require large gatherings in person.

“That’s more painful than missing the experience of Ramadan or even the Friday prayer,” he said.

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