As virtually every other area of social interaction shut down over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, churches continued to dole out socialization in whatever ways they could.
At Temple Beth Israel, you can still have cocktails, participate in discussions and share your “joys and oys” with your friends every Friday. It’s just like normal — except everyone connects through a screen.
Like the temple, the island’s other four centers of worship all moved to online services and added in whatever virtual programming they could, overcoming tech hurdles along the way. At Temple Beth Israel, executive director Isaac Azerad realized that much of their programming lent itself to virtualization. They’ve started a bridge club, a Friday happy hour, Shabbat dinners, book club, discussion groups with Rabbi Stephen Sniderman and have plans to expand.
“I've also discovered that there are two aspects of programming that we need to address,” Azerad said. “One is the kind of programming that lends itself to the label of caring and sharing (like discussion groups) … The next item is the item of ritual and worship.”
Friday gatherings are Zoom calls (with 35 or more screens) that are either informal or guided by a discussion question like, “What do you think life will look like after coronavirus?”, but the temple has also put together Shabbat dinners. Members join Zoom with their Shabbat candles, wine and challah bread, and Rabbi Sniderman leads them in the ritual blessings. After that, it becomes a friendly affair, much like it did in person.
Christ Church of Longboat Key has kept up with virtual Bible study, which draws a larger crowd than it does normally, said member Ann Quackenbush. Online service is popular, and the deacons have been busy calling members to make sure they’re doing OK while alone.
At All Angels Episcopal Church, drive-up and drop-off have allowed members to remain connected. The church organized a take a puzzle/leave a puzzle system with plenty of variety, so people could share their new quarantine activity. It’s next to their food collection barrel, so many have grabbed or left a puzzle as they dropped off food donations. Drive-in church allows people to see each other from car windows, as well.
“Also, we have two discussion groups and a Bible study that are conducted on Zoom which are really helping us to get to know one another,” Father Dave Marshall wrote in an email. “Oddly enough, we had one group where less than 25% of the group were physically on LBK. It is truly something amazing and nothing that we were doing last year.”
Elsewhere, like at St. Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church, in-person activities are slowly beginning again. St. Mary was the first church to restart in-person services over the weekend of May 23, allowing congregants to see their new priest. Father Robert Dziedziak started his tenure at the church in mid-March, so virtual mass was how he connected with his parishioners, and how they connected with each other.
“Our virtual masses on our website enabled our parishioners to get to know Father. Robert without meeting him,” office manager Antoinette Brill said. “Father kept our parishioners spiritually united through the virtual mass … Everyone who watched Mass online, loved him.”
Meanwhile, the folks of Longboat Island Chapel have organized among themselves to keep up socialization, from a drive-by food drive to small outdoor lunches. Events chair Valerie Evanko began putting together outdoor lunches of 10 or fewer people, after she and her husband thought of bringing their takeout meal to the chapel’s garden. Discussions of life in quarantine and personal stories are the main chatter, and the mood is often lighthearted rather than gloomy.
“They’re coming out in a safe way,” Evanko said. “There are a few people that turned us down for lunch and said, ‘I'm not coming out. I don't feel comfortable.’”
Not everyone is ready to see each other in person, and the chapel won’t be shifting back to in-person services soon. Those who feel safe come out, while others are content to stay inside and connect via online services.
The question of when worship will return to any semblance of normal remains, but in the meantime, virtual connection via phones, computers and services reigns supreme. For now, it seems to be working.
“We've been trying to bring in as many people as possible into that circle,” Azerad said. “And people are very, very grateful for that.”