Worship services across the country are being conducted with congregants remotely.

Benjamin Norman / The New York Times

Worship services across the country are being conducted with congregants remotely.

September 13, 2020

Spirituality and COVID: How Religious Groups Are Forging a Virtual Community

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Religious organizations at Cornell are working to provide faith-based community support for students’ health and wellbeing, even as the pandemic has forced changes to some long-held traditions. 

Facing disruptions to their normal religious programming, these groups have moved online for outreach and service — recognizing that many students need community now more than ever.

“I think a lot of people are thankful to be back at Cornell, but also there’s a lot of anxiety and students are concerned about their health,” Cornell Hillel Rabbi Ari Weiss said. “For me, that is a place where there’s room for a spiritual dimension. There is so much in Judaism that is about finding community and supporting one another in response to an uncertainty, which is especially important this year.”

Even though Cornell’s religious groups have mostly turned to Zoom to replace in-person events, weekly services each week are still a critical opportunity for the communities to meet and worship with each other.

“One of the most important services that we have always had was celebrating Mass on Sundays at Sage Chapel,” Joanna Sowa ’21, president of Cornell Catholic Community wrote in an email to The Sun. “However, this semester, instead of in-person Masses, our community continues to celebrate through weekly events.”

Public health precautions have also disrupted campus religious groups’ ability to host ceremonies and meals, events that are often semester mainstays. The Hindu Students Council, for example, traditionally hosts an annual dinner — a three-hour event that usually features Indian cuisine and performances — to celebrate the Diwali Festival of Lights.

However, in place of the dinner this year, the organization is “considering handing out gift bags with things that can help people celebrate at home,” HSC President Aashna Brahmbhatt wrote in an email to The Sun. Like other groups, HSC is also hosting all their meetings and events virtually.

Cornell Hillel has also found similar difficulties accommodating students as a result of the pandemic.

“Usually the first Friday night of the year, we have between 250 and 300 Cornellians join us for Friday night dinner, for Shabbat dinner,” Weiss said.

Now, the kosher dining hall 104 West! is limited to only 30 students at a time, and most get their meals to-go — losing out on some of the community the Shabbat dinners used to provide. But Hillel is still hosting virtual Shabbat services and social events to replicate some of what has been lost.

Despite transitioning to all virtual events, religious groups on campus have not shied away from their spiritual missions. For the Cornell Catholic Community, that means still “focusing on growing in our faith, building our relationship with God, and fostering community,” according to Sowa.

For Cornell Hillel, Rabbi Hayley Goldstein pointed to Jewish history for a message of hope.

“Something is really powerful about this, especially in COVID, thinking about [the ancient Israelites] in the desert,” Goldstein said. “They have no idea what’s going to happen, there’s a time of uncertainty, just like for many of our students. I find that hopeful and just something to hold on to as we navigate this desert time.”