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Passover, Easter to be a little more open in second year of the pandemic

Synagogues and churches search for a balance as comfort levels vary and only some worshipers have received a vaccine.
Tomas Perdomo grouts the tile floor of the sanctuary during a renovation of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Tampa on Thursday. The project, which highlights a towering stained-glass window at the head of the church, will be done in time for Easter services.
Tomas Perdomo grouts the tile floor of the sanctuary during a renovation of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Tampa on Thursday. The project, which highlights a towering stained-glass window at the head of the church, will be done in time for Easter services. [ IVY CEBALLO ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

When Maxine Kaufman went shopping at a kosher grocery store recently, she noticed many items were out of stock.

She figured people were likely celebrating Passover at home this year, for the second time during the pandemic.

But with Passover and Easter just ahead, and with mixed levels of comfort and vaccinations within families, synagogues and churches across Tampa Bay are edging toward more open celebrations than were possible last spring.

“We see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“There’s a phrase at the end of the Passover Seder that says ‘L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,’ meaning ‘next year in Jerusalem,’” she said. “Last year we said maybe next year we’ll be in person. And this year, again, we hope to be in person with our family, and it would be even greater if we were in Jerusalem.”

Kaufman will be celebrating just with her boyfriend on Saturday, having received one dose of the vaccine. Most synagogues within the federation will offer a virtual Seder on Sunday.

Related: Here's how faith leaders say we should get through this coronavirus

In a new Pew survey, 17 percent of U.S. adults indicated they had attended religious services in person during the past month, up from 13 percent in July. Participation also was up among regular attendees, with 42 percent saying they had been to services in the past month. That’s up from 33 percent in July.

Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, of Chabad CHAI of South Tampa, said his community is split over how comfortable they feel about gatherings. The synagogue will be renting the ballroom at the Bryan Glazer JCC on Saturday to host a socially distanced Seder for 100 people. A virtual event is planned for Sunday, along with a distribution of homemade matzo.

“Some people are vaccinated,” Dubrowski said. “Some people are yet to be vaccinated. Some are comfortable participating in communal events, some people are not. So our goal, first and foremost, is to find a way to involve everyone and have a meaningful experience.”

As Holy Week begins for Christians, the Easter story of resurrection is resonating, with many churches reopening for their first in-person services in many months. At the same time, they are keeping a sizable following online for parishioners still not comfortable meeting inside a church.

A floor-to-ceiling stained glass window of the risen Christ will be the centerpiece and metaphor of the day at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Tampa. The parish used time during the pandemic to complete a major renovation while the congregation tuned into services online or met in small groups in a nearby hall.

On Easter morning, parishioners will step into a church for the first time in months with a new layout that has flipped the orientation of the building. They will sit on new cherry pews and see a towering stained glass window of the resurrection image that has not been displayed in more than 40 years. It had been tucked behind choir lofts since the 1970s.

“It’s kind of a great metaphor,” said Rev. Anthony Coppola. “I’m turning this church around.”

This floor-to-ceiling stained glass window portraying Christ in the resurrection hasn't been displayed in more than 40 years. It will be revealed on Easter Sunday at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic church in Tampa in what the pastor calls a metaphor for this coronavirus time.
This floor-to-ceiling stained glass window portraying Christ in the resurrection hasn't been displayed in more than 40 years. It will be revealed on Easter Sunday at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic church in Tampa in what the pastor calls a metaphor for this coronavirus time. [ IVY CEBALLO ]

Like most churches, Most Holy Redeemer had no Easter service last year during the start of the pandemic, instead hosting a drive-through event with Easter gifts.

This Easter will be better than the last one, Coppola said, and the next one might be closer to normal.

“But we have to work on getting people to feel safe again, and that has been a real difficult thing,” he said.

Bishop Gregory Parkes, who heads the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, said parishioners are excused from attending Sunday Mass for safety reasons, but he urged them to participate “virtually or in person” during the holiest week of the Christian calendar.

In a statement released in advance of Palm Sunday, Parkes noted that as churches begin to reopen, social distancing, sanitizing and the use of face coverings remain in place. Holy water fonts are still empty, collection baskets are not circulated and the bishop “has decided that the general dispensation which was granted in March 2020 will remain in effect at this time.”

On Easter Sunday in 2020, St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg was empty. The font that normally holds holy water was empty and there was a large green bottle of Purell behind the vestibule. This year, services are offered in person, but holy water fonts are still empty, collection baskets are not circulated and the bishop has said it's fine for parishioners to view services online instead of in person.
On Easter Sunday in 2020, St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg was empty. The font that normally holds holy water was empty and there was a large green bottle of Purell behind the vestibule. This year, services are offered in person, but holy water fonts are still empty, collection baskets are not circulated and the bishop has said it's fine for parishioners to view services online instead of in person. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

At Mount Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg, Rev. Clarence Williams said he feels a lot better about Easter this year than he did last year. But the time in between has been tough.

“The inability of people of faith to gather and exercise their faith in the way they have become accustomed to has been a very hard blow for this country,” Williams said. “It is the religious community that gives balance to the political sectors, and their absence speaks to why the nation is in such turmoil.”

Williams said his church would typically have two packed Easter Sunday services. Last year the grounds were quiet as the church turned to livestreaming.

This Easter will feature a livestream, too, but the congregation will be invited to an outside sunrise service where they will release a dove in the morning.

“This country is resurrecting too. We are making a comeback,” Williams said. “But just like the pandemic wasn’t just one event, there were many phases — and that’s where we are now. There will be many phases to get people to feel comfortable that their houses of worship are a safe place to be.”

Rabbi Joel Simon with Congregation Schaarai Zedek said this time of year does look a little brighter for Jews and Christians than last year, when the holidays fell shortly after stay-at-home orders were put in place.

In the past, he’s had up to 30 people in his home to celebrate.

But this year, Simon is gathering with immediate family. His father, who is vaccinated, will join them. They’ll be seeing each other for the first time in more than a year.

The Tampa congregation will offer a YouTube reading of the Haggadah, the text usually recited at the Passover table. On Sunday, they will celebrate together with a virtual Seder on Zoom.

“What’s important is that we don’t spike the ball at the five-yard line and pretend everything is back to normal and ignore the risks,” Simon said. “I think we can take steps forward, and small groups of vaccinated adults can be together, and small groups of family can get together. But we also recognize there’s many people who can’t yet.”