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How Coronavirus Is Affecting Ramadan, Passover And Easter In The Valley

Three major religions will observe important holidays next month. Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter on April 12. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer, fasting and introspection begins April 23. And Jews will recall their exodus from Pharonic Egypt during Passover, a week-long holiday beginning April 8.

All of these holidays typically involve large gatherings in houses of worship — be they churches, mosques or synagogues — and all usually culminate with family gatherings and large feasts. These are not typical times, and as people grapple with the stresses of facing a global pandemic, many turn to faith for comfort, yet the health measures being asked of us are antithetical to the sense of community and assurance we seek from religion.

We spoke with some leaders of Valley religious institutions about how they are talking with their members and preparing for the holidays. Imam Omar Tawil leads the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, a Mosque and community resource that has served Muslims in the region since 1984. Tawil says he is focused on the health of the center’s members.

"One thing that we’re definitely going to look forward to canceling is the daily Iftars — the breaking of the fast that we host at the Mosque every day," he said. "The Mosque in Tempe has always been seen as a place for students, for families, for professionals or just a group of friends to really come out and break their fast together over a warm meal and to pray together and to continue praying through the night or to go home and prepare for the next day."

And as for Ramadan?

"Ramadan in terms of the fasting and the breaking the fast with friends and family might continue, but it will be probably be continuing in very small gatherings and it will not be happening at the Mosque," said Tawil.

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Passover begins next month as well, and Jews would normally gather for the service.

"There’s only one service that really occurs during Passover, and that’s Yizkor, and that only occurs three times a year — once during Sukkot, once during Shavuot and once during Passover," said Seth Ettinger, Temple Beth Israel’s Cantor.

He is hopeful social distancing will not be necessary next month, but the temple is preparing nonetheless.

"You’re supposed to come together and really remember those who have passed away in the past year," he said. "That will be affected only in the way that only 10 people — maybe this will be different by Passover — will be allowed in sanctuary at one time."

And as one door closes, another opens — in this case, the blessing of technology.

"Now, however, our services are live streamed," Ettinger said. 'So just because people are not physically in the room, doesn’t mean they still don’t have the chance to remember their loved ones."

Tawil said Islam encourages its followers to pray at home, that prayer services are necessary for social connections but that a connection to God is also very personal.

"There is no ordained ministry that needs to lead a prayer service or that leads the gathering in order for people to feel that, I guess you’d say, sense of worship or sense of spirituality or connection to the divine," he explained.

Many faith leaders see this as a teaching moment, an opportunity to take time and reflect on our roles in our communities and what is important to us. 

"They’re initially afraid and frustrated, our community is," Ettinger said, "because they haven’t thought about this before, and they have been doing the same thing for a very long time, and now we have the opportunity to point out the blessings that they do have. Don’t look at the frustrations, look at the blessings that you have."

The decision to close down operations was not an easy one, but Ettinger described how and why Beth Israel agreed to close down.

"This was a very difficult decision," he said. "I mean in Judaism there’s the classic joke — you get two Jews in a room you’ll get three opinions. I mean, we really went around and talked and talked and talked about not only what was best for the community, but what we aspire to is this idea of the koach nefesh, that life must be preserved above all else. ... So all of our actions are designed to maintain good health for our community whether they’re with us or not."

And in the mosque, Tawil teaches a command from the Koran that is nearly identical to the koach nefesh that Ettinger described.

"A majority of people are using their heads correctly they are taking the necessary precautions which is a commandment of — it’s a word that gets thrown out there — but of the Sharia, or the Sh’ar’ya — which is to really preserve life and take the necessary precautions," Tawil said. "It’s an injunction we find in our holy scriptures. Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and protect others."

Both leaders agreed that we may come out of this better for the experience.

"The silver lining in all of this is that we’re not go-go-go anymore, and we can actually take the time to call people and see how they are doing and be on the phone for more than just a couple minutes," Ettinger said.

For Tawil, this may, ironically, be an opportunity for people to draw closer together.

"I miss connections and I feel like maybe that can give us something to look forward to when this is over, that we will no longer take our human connections for granted," he said.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix provides services for more than 1.2 million Catholics in the region. With the Eucharist and Easter holidays coming up, the Church is grappling with temporarily closing its doors while keeping its connections with the community alive.

Bishop Thoms Olmsted oversees the Diocese, and he spoke with The Show about the church’s plans for serving its congregation while maintaining social distancing.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.