Campus religious groups adapt to COVID-19 restrictions
The ongoing pandemic and the switch from in-person to online events have affected religious organizations on campus that previously relied on face-to-face interaction to build a sense of community.
Before the pandemic, organizations like the Sikh Students Association fostered friendship through social events like cider mill trips or Kirtan nights, when members would play traditional drums and sing together, but COVID-19 put a stop to these activities.
SSA’s leadership had to find ways to work around the restrictions that prevented large indoor gatherings.
LSA junior Ramneet Chauhan, co-president of SSA, said the organization is conducting meetings over Zoom and had a socially-distanced field day at Palmer Field.
“We’ve seen a lot of first years coming to our events, even to the Palmer Field event,” Chauhan said. “Everyone had a lot of fun so I think the sense of community is still there.”
Organizations have also adapted religious holidays and festivals. LSA senior Deepali Desai, Hindu Students Council co-president, said her organization had to cancel their Holi event because of the initial shut down in March.
The first day of Diwali, a major Hindu festival, occurred this past Saturday. In a COVID-19-free year, Desai and her fellow members would organize a large Diwali party, including a buffet with food from a local Indian restaurant. This year, they are focusing on a smaller Zoom call for members only to celebrate.
“On the day of Diwali we’re just going to dress up and get together on Zoom, and we’re going to watch a movie or a TV show or play some games,” Desai said. “We just want to celebrate with each other, which is something we really haven’t been able to do over the past few years, because we’d usually be so busy with planning the banquet and making sure everything’s running smoothly during that.”
Other holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, also had to change. But LSA junior Sarah Pomerantz, the chair for the undergraduate student governing board of Hillel, said the organization continues to try to create “a holistic experience” for Jewish students.
Hillel organized Shofar blowing, a Jewish tradition of blowing a horn to announce the new year, in the Nichols Arboretum. Every half hour, a group of at most 25 people would listen to the service while social distancing, leaving before the other group came.
Hillel is also hosting online events like trivia nights and learning programs. LSA sophomore Nomi Rosen, an executive board member of I-LEAD, encouraged students to take part in the virtual events. I-LEAD is a student organization that facilitates conversations about issues related to the State of Israel.
“I think it actually makes it a lot easier for students to participate because it’s easier to do through the platform of Zoom and technology,” Rosen said.
Hillel also regularly reached out to the Jewish community with pick-up Shabbat dinners that were delivered to major dormitories around campus. According to Pomerantz, the initiative has been successful, with higher levels of engagement compared to the traditional Shabbat dinners in previous years in the Hillel building.
“We very quickly have surpassed our normal levels of engagement,” Pomerantz said. “I think especially for freshmen, they are starved for social interaction, and we were able to go to them. I think it went up mainly for freshmen who can sometimes be shy about joining such a large organization. … They didn’t have to walk into a room of 200 people and try to find where to sit.”
On the contrary, Friar Mark Mossa of St. Mary Student Parish noted a sharp decrease in community engagement amid the pandemic. He and other church leaders are working on ways to keep students involved in church activity.
“We’ve got to be more deliberate in trying different things — some of which work better than others,” Mossa said. “We were gathering people in the Arboretum, and that worked OK for a couple of weeks, and then people stopped coming.”
The St. Mary Student Parish was planning to conduct in-person events, but Washtenaw County’s two week stay-in-place order, which has since ended, forced them to quickly change fall retreat plans to an online format.
The parish has also instituted a small faith community initiative that connects 10 students to regularly discuss their faith. Within their groups, students can choose to meet online or in-person with each other. Mossa plans to continue the program even after COVID-19 restrictions ease.
“Things are constantly changing. Just when you think you’re getting in a rhythm and things are starting to move and come together, then you get something like a stay-at-home order and suddenly you have to change gears and put everything online,” Mossa said. “And that’s a constant in recent months — always being ready for something to change, and having to adjust things accordingly. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to be creative.”
Daily News Contributor Safura Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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