Psalm Sunday over Zoom.

Flora Tang ’20 (second row, middle) blesses “palms” over Zoom, which include flowers, small tree branches, and even houseplants.

Photo courtesy of Flora Tang

Campus & Community

Blessings from afar

7 min read

Harvard’s faith communities honor Easter and Passover — from a distance

Social distancing in the age of coronavirus means improvisation, and members of the Harvard community are nothing if not creative. Over the past several weeks students, faculty, and staff have found innovative ways to mark some of the holiest days in the Jewish and Christian calendars remotely, including Passover seders and Holy Week services.

Harvard Divinity School

At Harvard Divinity School (HDS), two students have pulled together a virtual Passover seder set for Monday. The online meal will be open to anyone regardless of faith and will blend tradition with invention.

“We’re working on a Haggadah that can be shared virtually so that everyone will be able to go through it together, and within the Haggadah we’ve assigned specific parts to members of the Jewish Student Association, areas where they can share a quote, poem, or thought around that particular element of the seder,” Molly Silverstein wrote in an email, describing their approach to the Jewish text read during the ritual meal.

To keep the community feel, she and co-organizer Rachel Leiken will ask attendees to “read parts of the Haggadah aloud and share how they may be relating to the story and themes of Passover, such as moving from the narrowness of bondage to the spaciousness of freedom, all themes that are especially relevant right now,” wrote Silverstein.

Creative cuisine will be integral to the seder menu, as many will be limited in the kinds of food they may be able to buy, said the organizers, who also plan to have people break into traditional Jewish study pairs to discuss elements of the seder and show a film clip, possibly from “A Rugrats Passover,” “to break up the service and hopefully make things feel light and fun,” Silverstein said. 

Rugrats Passover.
In “A Rugrats Passover,” Tommy Pickles parts the Red Sea as Moses. Credit: Nickelodian

For the past several weeks Harvard Divinity School student Flora Tang, M.T.S. ’20, has been helping organize online daily and Sunday worship services. Coordinating the more involved liturgies in the lead-up to Easter has been a challenge. They weren’t able to incorporate a procession into the Palm Sunday service that marked the beginning of Holy Week and the end of Lent, but when it came to carrying palm branches to signify those placed in the path of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, they MacGyver-ed a solution.

“We invited everyone to bring a branch from outside, a flower, leaf, or houseplant, and we did a blessing over leaves and greenery via Zoom,” said Tang.

As the weeks have passed, Tang said she has been increasingly impressed with how creative her community has been in adapting to the new normal. She even wrote a 20-second prayer about coronavirus in keeping with the recommended length of time for hand-washing. Bonding over Zoom, she said, has helped people cope.

“Easter is a hard season this year because it’s a season of hope and joy, and it’s hard to see that when we’re in isolation,” said Tang “Celebrating doesn’t change the realities of this world,” she added, but it “makes me search harder for that hope and joy.”

Memorial Church

As it has for the past several weeks, Memorial Church has been holding services while its doors remain closed. Instead of gathering in person, worshipers of any faith are encouraged to tune in to the weekly Sunday services at the church on WHRB at 95.3 FM or log in to the church’s Soundcloud account.

In keeping with the governor’s directive to stay put and guidance from the University, members of the church’s clergy and Music Department have been recording themselves at home from around Greater Boston and sending their digital clips to a church staff member who edits the pieces of the service together into a file that can be played on the Harvard station.

On Thursday, the church will offer a Maundy Thursday service through Zoom. The Good Friday service will be on the church’s Soundcloud account, and Easter Sunday service on April 12 at 11 a.m. will be broadcast on WHRB and made available on Soundcloud later in the week.

Stephanie Paulsell celebrates part of the Maundy Thursday service on Zoom for Memorial Church.

Photo courtesy of Harvard Memorial Church

Maundy Thursday.

Stephanie Paulsell, interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at HDS, will deliver the Easter sermon. In the early days of the pandemic, Paulsell was still celebrating Sunday services in the church without a congregation and only a handful of other clergy and singers standing at least six feet apart, but soon even that was deemed too risky by the University. Her first efforts to record a sermon at home took place under a blanket as she tried to limit the echoes she got while speaking into her phone. An external mic, sent to her by a student, has helped smooth out the process, she said.

Recording her sermons has given Paulsell “respect for people who are on the radio or who have podcasts, and all the things that they can do with their voice alone,” she said. It has also deepened her sense of the importance of community. “It’s critical that we stay connected during this difficult time, and being able to keep offering services to our community has been vital.”

Paulsell said her Easter sermon will likely touch on the concept of pilgrimage, the theme the church has embraced during the 2019‒20 academic term. “That is what we have been thinking about all year, and that’s taken on a new significance now.”

“It’s critical that we stay connected during this difficult time, and being able to keep offering services to our community has been vital.”

Stephanie Paulsell

Ed Jones can’t conduct the Harvard University Choir, now scattered around the country, but the Gund University Organist and choirmaster is staying connected with its members by hosting a virtual tea time twice a week.

For the church’s online and radio services Jones has kept the music alive, incorporating tracks of music the choir previously recorded in the church and recording himself singing the hymns. And while he may not be able to play either of the church’s two organs, he can accompany himself on the piano, once owned by Peter Gomes, the much beloved, late Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” said Jones, but using Gomes’ instrument “has a lot of memory value to me and to the congregation.”

Harvard Hillel

Harvard Hillel, a center for Jewish life for College students and members of the community, has been keeping people connected online through a range of programming, events, and even a virtual dining hall where anyone from the College community can join to share a meal, but they will have to insert/create their own treats to stand in for those typically offered by their beloved Chef Jack, its website states.

For Passover, Hillel rabbis will lead interactive seders online during the week, as well as a discussion on Thursday that will offer those hosting their own seders at home helpful tips and suggestions.