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‘Letting go of the normal’: Princeton, pandemic, and religious life

chapel empty.jpg
The Princeton University Chapel. 
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian 

Normally, when the members of Princeton’s Muslim Life Program gather to pray, they follow Muslim tradition, staking spiritual significance in the power of physical touch. 

“We literally stand shoulder to shoulder, leave no gaps between ourselves,” said Imam Sohaib Sultan. 


But these aren’t normal times. And now, says Sultan, “there are a lot of gaps between ourselves.” Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with his congregants in Murray Dodge Hall each Friday, Sultan sees his community weekly over Zoom — neatly arranged boxes staring back at him from the screen. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped billions of lives, religious organizations around the world have faced the shuttering of their houses of worship. Without access to their holy spaces, the faithful have been forced to redefine traditions, adapt holidays, foster virtual community, and organize remote weekly prayer. 

The University’s religious communities are no exception. As students scrambled to leave campus in the wake of the University’s March 13 move-out order, nearly all had to say goodbye to their favorite spaces on campus. For some, those spaces included their spiritual homes.

The promise and peril of a Zoom congregation 

With the Center for Jewish Life closed, Rabbi Julie Roth, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) and Jewish Chaplain, has to grapple with the challenge of sustaining her community. 

“The dining hall is not open, we’re not gathering for services and Shabbat dinner, we’re unable to use the building,” she said. “We’ve had to figure out how to build community and stay connected when we’re not together.” 


Each year, the CJL hosts two Passover Seders — ritual feasts marking the beginning of the week-long holiday — welcoming students who could not make it home to their family seders. This year, the CJL had to adapt. On April 8, 75 households (those of students, faculty, and alumni) Zoomed in to join the virtual celebration. 

“More than 200 people participated over two nights,” Roth said. Without the Seder, she added, many of those people would have spent the holiday alone. 

Still, creating online programming has caused turmoil, especially for traditionally observant students who do not use technology on Shabbat or holidays like Passover. For Arielle Mindel ’21, the President of Chabad, social-distancing protocol has meant making difficult choices — balancing family obligations and ritual law. 

“While it was a little weird for some of us to be using electronics during the Holiday,” she said, “we agreed that it was definitely worth it to enable my grandma, who lives alone, to be able to enjoy a Seder with her family.”

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To keep traditions alive, chaplains have worked to adapt their normal approaches. To accommodate those who wish to abstain from using technology during Shabbat, the CJL has been offering the first part of the Friday night service — prior to sunset, when Shabbat begins — on Zoom. Similarly, the Jummah services held weekly on Fridays by the Muslim Life Program (MLP) are abridged in their online version. 

“After supplication, we can’t do the main prayer together so everyone goes and does it individually,” Sultan said.

Online services via Zoom also run the risk of intrusion. During the MLP’s Jummah prayer on Friday, April 17, Islamophobic “zoombombers” interrupted the service with offensive slurs and pornographic images. 

While many participants exited the call, “confused” and “disturbed,” Sultan estimated that about 100 congregants returned. The group then said a prayer for the people who had disrupted their service.

“I think, in the face of hatred like this it’s really important to stand together as a community and continue doing what we do best,” Fawaz Ahmad ’22, Muslim Student Association President and co-host of the meeting, previously told The Daily Princetonian.

The group has now implemented security measures to prevent further hacking.

In the words of Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel Rev. Alison L. Boden, the past weeks have been about “letting go of the normal and usual.” Nine days before Easter Sunday, she pre-recorded herself preaching the holiday’s sermon, completely alone in the empty University Chapel. 

She and her colleagues have decided to tape weekly services within their homes, but advanced planning allowed them to celebrate this holiday in the Chapel prior to its closing.

“It’s a really important service, and we knew we still wanted it to happen,” she said.

Certain practices are entirely impossible through technology, and have to be pushed back or called off.

Princeton Hindu Satsangam (PHS) usually hosts an event for Holi, a spring festival where participants dress in white and throw colored powder. 

“It’s usually really fun, but that’s not something you can do at all remotely, unfortunately,” said Pranav Rekapalli ‘20, former president of PHS. “So we’ve had to cancel.”

“For Catholics, the most important moments are the sacraments. Personal contact is important to receive the communion,” said Father Joe Thomas, Assistant Chaplain of the Aquinas Institute. “And with Confession as well: you can’t do it over the phone without violating the privacy of the Sacrament.”

For many Christians, not being able to receive the Eucharist has proven difficult. 

“This is the time for a spiritual communion,” Boden said. 

Those who were hoping to receive these sacraments for the first time this year are faced with a unique challenge. Easter Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday is the pinnacle of the liturgical year; it is a time when people are received into the Church and, after baptisms or confirmations, become Catholics. 

“Since Easter comes at the end of Lent, we usually have a large celebration following the Vigil,” Matthew Igoe ’20, the former President of the Aquinas Institute, explained. “We really felt this loss this year, especially for the students who have been preparing since the fall to be accepted into the Church.” 

Given that this celebration usually only takes place on this one day of the liturgical year, special provisions may have to be made by dioceses to allow for these students to receive sacraments as soon as social distancing protocols are lifted. 

“If this occurs, it will be celebrated privately, rather than the way it was previously anticipated,” Igoe said. 

“Creating a space, a portal, an access point”: Chaplains and students step up 

As COVID-19 imperils the world, University Chaplains have made themselves available as resources to every person who counts themselves as part of their community. The CJL contacted each affiliated student to check in following the evacuation. Thomas personally sent text messages to each of his students for Easter. 

This is a time for chaplains to “give people perspective on what is happening, while being empathetic to the fact that lives are radically changing,” said Sultan. 

“Life may not be the way we envisioned it to be but we have food and shelter, we are not forced to flee as refugees from our home. Some are losing their jobs or lack health care. It’s important to put our own experiences into perspective,” he added. 

For some students grappling with the emotional repercussions of the abrupt end to in-person learning, social distancing, and the pandemic, staying connected to their faith and communities feels more vital than ever. 

Zev Mishell ’22, President of Koach, the Jewish Conservative prayer group, feels he has an important role to play in “creating a space, portal, or access point” for himself and his group to stay in touch with their religious identities. 

Saareen Junaid ’23, Communications Director of the Muslim Student Association, is working tirelessly to support Muslim students that have remained on campus and assure that they get the support they need with the upcoming celebration of Ramadan. 

Other student leaders have found creative ways to connect with their communities.

Rekapalli said that PHS’s routine weekly Friday meetings have continued as usual, with a few adjustments. They watch parts of movies over Zoom and discuss how they relate to Hindu philosophy. Though the group can’t hold their regular catered dinners, plans for a spring send-off — complete with games, roasts, and sentimental speeches — are well underway.

Sakura Price ’22, co-founder of the Jewish affinity group J-Asians, organized her own virtual Kosher cooking class. Wanting to include ingredients that many could likely find in their pantries, she led a lesson on how to make sesame noodles. Open to those affiliated with the CJL, the program garnered considerable turnout. 

Brian Foster ’21, the Student Exec of Christian Union NOVA, helped create a weekly newsletter to encourage members to share motivating messages in this troubling time. The newsletter also offers challenges for members to complete — “Connect with somebody in your Bible Course this week!” — to ensure members stay connected.

Aleeza Schoenberg ’22, a Community Engagement Intern at the CJL, created a satirical cartoon rendition of the 10 plagues of Egypt, a story of the book of Exodus, titled “The 10 Plagues of Living at Home.” She is also working on compiling audio-recordings to ensure that a play she had been directing for the CJL can still go on. 

In the absence of physical contact, Princeton religious groups have adapted to the online sphere. Chaplains, students, and community members are determined to stay connected with each other and with their faith, no matter the challenges. 

Take it from Imam Sohaib Sultan. “The beauty of spirituality,” he said, “is it transcends time, place, and form.”