Easter, Passover, Ramadan — Johnson County houses of worship navigate another holy season with COVID-19

Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village continues to worship remotely, including virtual services of Holy Week this year. Senior pastor Tom Are, above, said their choice to remain remote is not only for the health of their congregation but for the good of the larger community. File photo.

With the Jewish Passover ongoing, Christian Holy Week wrapping up with Easter Sunday and the Muslim month of Ramadan starting later this month, local health officials worry the yearly confluence of these three major religious observances could lead to some residents relaxing their guard against COVID-19.

But they are warning that it is still too soon to resume activities at their full pre-pandemic scale.

Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., director of the Johnson County health department, said it’s best to keep gatherings small for the time being, even if people are fully vaccinated.

“There’s no question we got to where we are because we acted together collectively out of a sense of responsibility, not just to ourselves, but to our fellow residents and that has to continue,” Areola said.

At this time, the CDC recommends keeping religious celebrations contained to the home or logging onto a virtual service.

Johnson County’s current public health order exempts religious services from a countywide mask mandate and previously instituted capacity limits and prohibitions against large gatherings are no longer in place.

But many local congregations are still being cautious during this season of worship.

‘Next year in Jerusalem’

Passover this year began March 29 and ends April 4.

In normal times, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, the senior rabbi at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park usually invitees 20 to 30 guests into his home for a Seder, the traditional Passover meal.

That won’t be happening this year, he says. For the last two years, he’s invited his guests to celebrate with him and his family virtually.

“While not ideal, it was amazing to be able to share Passover with our family in Louisiana, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida,” he said. “Where — if we had been doing this normally — they would not have been able to participate.”

A traditional Passover Seder table setting arranged in the All-Electric House at the Johnson County Museum this year. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Generally, Passover is celebrated in one’s home anyway, so COVID-19 precautions weren’t a barrier this year, Nemitoff said.

Throughout the pandemic, Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s temple has been physically closed, but they’ve made use of newly-installed technology to live-stream services.

That’s presented a new opportunity, Nemitoff said.

“While in a normal year, we might have 5,000 people for our High Holiday services,” he said, “we had over 25,000 people access our virtual-only services this year. That is something that we want to continue, even as we figure out how to do so and have in-person services.”

After COVID-19, he says the temple plans to integrate virtual services into its regular operations, making both virtual and in-person experiences available.

He has hope, however, that he can invite people into his home once again for the Seder.

“We end the Passover Seder by saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ I ended my Seder [this year] by saying, ‘Next year may we all gather together in-person, safely and be able to embrace one another,’” Nemitoff said. “That is my hope for all of us.”

A virtual Holy Week

Village Presbyterian Church has operated under a similar virtual-focused mindset during the pandemic.

Except for a few outdoor worship services in the last few months, services at the church along Mission Road in Prairie Village have been completely virtual since last March, Reverend Tom Are, the senior pastor, said.

For Easter celebrations this year, the church planned a few in-person activities outside its building paired with some virtual services.

“We will also have at both of our [campuses] an in-person Journey with Jesus experience, a self-guided walk through the life of Christ and will be outside on Saturday before Easter, April 3,” Are said.

The church’s traditional Holy Week services — Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Morning — are all conducted online.

On Easter Sunday, Village’s main branch on Mission Road is planning a 5 p.m. service in the south parking lot of the building.

Previously, Are said the decision to keep services remote was centered on safety.

Now, he said, continuing with virtual worship is part of the church’s effort to not only protect the health of the congregation but to help continue tamping down spread “for the larger community” as well.

A hope for in-person prayers soon

Ramadan is also quickly approaching as well, but what exactly it will look like for the Islamic Center of Johnson County in south Overland Park remains up in the air, saysTariq Aziz, secretary of the center’s Board of Trustees .

From April 12 to May 12 this year, observant Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset in a collective time of reflection and contemplation. Each day’s fast can be broken at home or at a mosque with Muslim’ nightly evening prayer.

“We are still reviewing the COVID situation, but we are very hopeful that we can arrange our sunset prayers in the mosque in Ramadan starting April 13,” Aziz said.

For much of the past year, the Islamic Center of Johnson County has been hosting socially distanced prayer. At times, that has led to families gathering and praying on rugs in the parking lot, as seen here for prayers in summer 2020. Photo courtesy Islamic Center of Johnson County’s Facebook page.

Currently, the Islamic Center is open for hybrid operations, mixing in-person and virtual elements to adhere to guidelines from health officials as closely as possible.

Five daily prayers are hosted in-person with members socially distanced. Prayers at noon on Fridays — Muslims’ biggest weekly observance — are spread out inside the mosque and into overflow areas in the parking lot outside.

Activities like Quran classes and daily sermons are given virtually.

“We are wearing masks, bringing our own rugs, monitoring temperature and keeping six-foot distance while performing prayer,” Aziz said. “These precautions are necessary to keep the worshipers and community at large safe.”

With that caution in mind, Aziz says the center has closed its doors to in-person activities at times to minimize the ability for COVID-19 to spread.

“We are very mindful to the safety and well-being of the community,” he said.