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With Passover, Easter and Ramadan looming, clergy scramble to create holidays at a distance

A man with a face mask attended a Mass on Saturday, which was recorded to be broadcasted on social networks Sunday, in the empty Saint Francois-Xavier Church in Paris. As religious holidays such as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan approach, faith leaders around the world have had to grapple with celebrations changed by coronavirus.
A man with a face mask attended a Mass on Saturday, which was recorded to be broadcasted on social networks Sunday, in the empty Saint Francois-Xavier Church in Paris. As religious holidays such as Easter, Passover, and Ramadan approach, faith leaders around the world have had to grapple with celebrations changed by coronavirus. AFP via Getty Images

The Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg canceled the Boston ferns and the yellow daffodils ordered for the Easter service at his Episcopal church in Washington, D.C.’s affluent Kalorama neighborhood. Rabbi Levi Shemtov scrapped plans for the 200-person Seder dinner for Passover in his Chabad synagogue nearby. And Imam Yahya Luqman called off the Ramadan dinners at his mosque down the street.

These three faith leaders, who normally lead worship within walking distance from each other in Northwest Washington, are all scrambling to find socially distant ways to celebrate major religious holidays this month. They are joined by clergy and the faithful around the world.

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On Sunday, Christians will launch Holy Week with Palm Sunday, preparing to recount the biblical story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since St. Margaret’s canceled services, including for Easter on April 12, Weinberg has been working on a sermon about the life and message of Jesus that he will post on YouTube.

‘‘People are dealing with profound loss, so we have to adapt,” Weinberg said.

He knows his religious peers are in the same boat.

‘‘We collegially greet one another because we share an alley,’’ Weinberg said of Shemtov and Luqman, whose houses of worship are located around the corner from his Connecticut Avenue church, on Leroy Place NW. ‘‘There’s a beauty in that we’re in this together.’’

At TheSHUL of the Nation’s Capital, Shemtov has personnel arranging boxes that include matzoh and the other traditional elements of a Seder meal to be distributed to the Jewish community. The rabbi, who avoids the use of electronics on holy days, will lead a live-stream demonstration of the Seder before Passover begins at sundown Wednesday.

‘‘Being alone is antithetical to the spirit of Passover,’’ said Shemtov.

For many families, the multigenerational aspect will especially be missing because older people are in isolation, Shemtov said, and Jewish families often invite people who have no place to go to join them for the Seder meal.

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‘‘People are doing the absolute best they can,’’ Shemtov said. ‘‘It’s different and not as joyous as other years have been, but people are focusing inward on their family and personally as opposed to outward.’’

The synagogue shares the same tiny, one-way street as the American Fazl Mosque, a stately converted row house that is the oldest Muslim house of worship in the nation’s capital. Luqman said his mosque, established by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1950, would normally host about 50 people each night of Ramadan for an iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast, starting on April 23. Instead, this year, families will break fast in their homes.

‘‘I wouldn’t say it’s a blessing in disguise because there’s a pandemic, but there are all these distractions in people’s lives that disrupt their religious duties,’’ Luqman said, citing the obligation to pray five times a day as one such duty. ‘‘When people are at home, they can turn their attention to these prayers.”

In Jerusalem, the strict coronavirus social distancing regulations that have been in place for most of March look set to continue through April, upending traditional holiday plans for Jews, Muslims, and Christians and threatening the country’s tourism industry.

Passover, Easter, and Ramadan typically draw hundreds of thousands of international visitors and pilgrims of all faiths to Israel, but this year Christian and Muslim leaders have accepted that flagship events will be carried out with only essential clergy and, in many cases, streamed online for followers.

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Israeli Jews, who spend the first night of Passover recounting the exodus from Egypt during the festive Seder meal, were instructed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a ‘‘lockdown Seder’’ this year.

‘‘I request that you hold in it in the context of the nuclear family that lives with you,’’ he urged in a televised address. He also shared a public service announcement urging Jews not to gather in groups. ‘‘We outlasted and overcame Pharaoh, we’ll outlast and overcome this.’’