Students connect with faith communities virtually as COVID-19 moves worship online


Photo courtesy Michael Simon

Northwestern Hillel’s Birthright Israel alumni connect over Zoom.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

For the foreseeable future, religious services have moved online.

That’s the sentiment across Northwestern’s faith communities as virtual conferencing platform Zoom will likely host more worshippers than any single place of worship on campus currently. As limits on large gatherings force holy spaces to close, students are staying connected to their faith communities virtually.

Though restrictions set in response to COVID-19 canceled OM at Northwestern’s plans to celebrate the Hindu festival Holi outside Charles Deering Memorial Library as the group planned, members are hoping to stay connected via Zoom. Starting Sunday, the group’s weekly sessions on Sanatana Dharma and Vedic culture will take place over the platform, president and Weinberg sophomore Pari Thakkar said.

Members will still discuss “Self Unfoldment” by Swami Chinmayananda chapter-by-chapter, but they’ll push the meetings from early afternoon to night time to accommodate participants’ various time zones.

“It’s hard to have that same experience over Zoom,” Thakkar said. “But at least there is something for us to fall back on in terms of our progress through our curriculum.”

Though the coronavirus pandemic has scattered students around the world, other faith-based organizations are attempting to stay in touch with students. Northwestern Hillel staff members are offering virtual coffee chats, organizing programming through an online platform called Hillel @ Home and compiling resources for students with difficult home situations.

Executive Director Michael Simon said the pandemic has shifted Hillel’s priorities.

“This is a jarring experience where the world doesn’t feel like it’s operating the way the world normally does,” Simon said. “How can we put aside our immediate concerns about what grade am I going to get and think about, ‘will people get the medical care they need? Can they get the food they need? Are they going to be OK?’”

Some students are looking to their local place of worship for guidance. Medill freshman Andrew Rowan belongs to Congregation Beth El in Voorhees Township, New Jersey. He said the synagogue has gone virtual, streaming services on Zoom. Over 35 people attended a recent evening minyan service — a prayer service for mourners — on the platform, he said, and the congregation is planning to lead a live Zoom Passover seder.

Despite the occasional barking dog, Rowan, a former Daily staffer, said the switch to online worship has succeeded. He added that he’s proud of his community for coming together during uncertain times.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘We’re stuck here, and who knows how long it’ll go on for,’ Rowan said. “But we have all these tools at our disposal, and most people are still looking for some sort of engagement. So let’s see what the best ways (are) for us to engage our community.”

Medill freshman Michael McDonough attended the Sheil Catholic Center’s Sunday mass during the school year. Although the center closed in compliance with Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, McDonough said he’s been praying at home with his family more often than he usually does.

Despite closures, students said they feel more connected to their faith. Especially now, Thakkar said Hinduism has helped ground her.

“All religions, not just Hinduism, provide a way of life, a lens through which we can modify our modern lives with the goal of spreading happiness and welfare to you and others around you,” she said. “Keeping that religious lens in mind has definitely helped me cope during these less-than-ideal circumstances.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Pari Thakkar’s name. The Daily regrets this error.