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Religious Groups Keep Faith During Pandemic, Remote Academic Year | News

D. Anthony Alvarez ’21, a member of the Harvard Latter-Day Saints Student Association, has attended services in the same off-campus ward since arriving at Harvard as a freshman.

That semester, Alvarez said he was still attending services in the same congregation. In the midst of Covid-19, however, he must register in order to attend in time, put on a mask and avoid the singing that infectious particles can spread.

As the college nears the first anniversary of student homecoming due to the pandemic, students said they have broken new ground to practice their belief in the Covid-19 era, including attending church services with reduced capacity, convening religious talks through Zoom and seeking assistance from Harvard chaplains.

With no physical space to practice her beliefs, Tarina K. Ahuja ’24 said she found solace in Zoom meetings with the Sikhs and companions of Harvard.

Ahuja said she appreciated the way virtual space created her spiritual and personal relationships.

“Practicing belief in a pandemic is obviously very, very difficult because you can no longer practice as personally as you used to,” said Ahuja. “To be honest, there are so few Sikhs at Harvard that it was definitely difficult to find this community in the first semester.”

“Having this booth really meant the world,” she added.

Matthew M. Jelen ’21, a member of Harvard Hillel, said the organization had moved most of its social programs to an online format. Members have turned to their local churches for rituals and prayers.

“What is really missing is the more religious programming,” said Jelen. “Students were forced to reach out to their home churches – especially students who live off-campus – to basically get the religious program they would normally find at Hillel.”

Bracha Rosenberg ’21, another Hillel participant, said online services – which have become popular during the pandemic – can be limiting for people who are closely watching Shabbat, including themselves.

“Many Orthodox students don’t use electronics on Shabbat, so we can’t zoom in, we can’t provide services on Shabbat,” said Rosenberg.

The pandemic has also created difficulties for Muslim students attending Ramadan – a month-long holiday that practitioners observe through fasting and prayer – that begins on April 12th.

Prior to the pandemic, Harvard Muslim chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid said he hosted Ramadan dinners every night so that students could break together and have access to halal restaurants.

“[Harvard University Dining Services] hadn’t really served halal food in the past, except for the occasional halal chicken, ”he said. “With the Covid situation, the really good thing is that HUDS is reforming the way they eat, especially for Muslim students.”

Aisha C. Abdelhamid ’23, co-president of the Harvard Islamic Society, said the group had successfully campaigned for HUDS to add halal food to its dining options this semester.

Abdur-Rashid said he hoped Muslim students living on campus could come together to watch the holidays.

“Maybe something can be done in college where students can break down, even in pairs,” he said. “In a way, that’s acceptable in order to maintain a certain sense of community.”

Reem K. Ali ’23, the other co-president of the Harvard Islamic Society, said her group had run programs during the pandemic, including discussion groups, “big sibling, little sibling” pairings and speaker events.

Christian student groups have also tried to strengthen connections between students online.

Harvard College Faith and Action ran weekly Zoom programs for discipleship and fellowship groups per member of Festus O. Ojo ’21.

Ojo said he and other students tried to repeat the “intimate interaction” provided by face-to-face group events.

“We’re still trying to simulate the same thing through zoom, so definitely grateful for this room because it’s been a tough time,” he said.

John E. “Jack” Markert ’23, a member of the Harvard Baha’i Association, said he found it difficult to make connections through on-line programming. Still, he said the organization had seen significant turnout at its virtual events.

Harvard Dharma, a Hindu student association, has not only virtually replicated its personal programming, but also created unique events tailored to the remote environment, according to the group’s co-president, Pranati P. Parikh ’21.

“Instead of making really, really big Zoom calls every now and then, we’re trying to do smaller things more regularly and let people know that we’re mentally here,” Parikh said. “We are here to support you.”

For example, during a Zoom call, club members shared how they practice Hindu rituals in their homes.

Harvard Buddhist chaplain Lama Migmar Tseten said he found zoom conducive to meditation retreats.

“The real meaning of retreat is to withdraw from any distractions in the outside world,” he said. “I think it works very well.”

Humanist chaplain Greg M. Epstein said he made a habit of visiting his students directly.

“We should all have the opportunity to talk about what we feel good about, what we feel terrible about, and what we feel insecure about,” he said. “This is not a program, it is not a special guest speaker, but it is what we need.”

Chana “Adelle” Goldenberg ’21, co-president of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics, said she reached out to the organization to help deal with the start of the pandemic.

“I returned to the basic questions that led me to a spiritual organization:” What is the meaning of life and how do we make the most of it? “Said Goldenberg.

—Assist Alex M. Koller can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @alexmkoller.

– Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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