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Credit: Ava Cruz

With virtual dinners, prayers, and services, religious Penn students got creative while observing the holidays last week.

Due to restrictions on public gathering and travel, many Penn students had to modify their celebrations of Easter and Passover this year. Despite the physical distance, students were pleasantly surprised by unexpected benefits that arose from their non-conventional celebrations, like spending more time with immediate family.

Students resorted to online video chat platforms such as Zoom to connect with distant loved ones and dressed up to attend virtual services over the holidays, trying to bring some semblance of normalcy to the holiday season.

Engineering first-year Tillie Donover explained that her family was unable to use the Haggadah, the text used to guide Passover seder dinners, and songbooks they usually read from during the holiday because they were in a storage unit the family could not access due to her grandparents' recent move. Donover was also unable to acquire many components of the traditional seder plate, a vital part of the Passover dinner, like the shank bone and horseradish, because of an unusually limited supply at the grocery store.

The most significant change, Donover said, was the loss of time spent bonding in person with family members who she does not often see. 

"We lost the whole aspect of hanging out and talking and catching up," Donover said. "[The seder] was a lot more bare bones." 

Despite these challenges, Donover noted that the quarantine allowed her to be closer with her immediate family over the holiday than she would have been at Penn.

"Passover is a very family-based holiday," Donover said. "So now that we're all stuck with our families, unless you're in on-campus housing alone, it's a time where you can really all stick together and make food together and come together."

College sophomore Jay Falk also found that the quarantine provided opportunities to connect with people she normally would not be able to include in her Passover celebration. Present at Falk's Zoom seder were friends and relatives usually not able to attend normal in-person festivities at her home in Virginia, like her grandparents who live in Florida, and a friend she met while studying abroad in Thailand this semester. 

"For me, it was kind of unique and special," Falk said. "And, frankly, Zoom didn't work that badly."

Friends and relatives attended Falk's seder over Zoom. (Photo from Jay Falk)

College and Wharton junior Daniel Rodriguez dressed up and attended virtual masses with his family. Rodriguez said that he enjoyed watching his faith community, like his peers at Penn Newman Center, an on-campus Catholic hub, find ways to overcome restrictions to still celebrate and support one another.

"Even though we might not be able to be there physically with one another, we're still being able to be there virtually for one another," Rodriguez said. 

Rodgriguez also mentioned that he and other Penn students have turned to the Catholic community at Penn's Newman center for solace in the midst of the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic. He said that many of the events and services Penn Newman offered in person are currently being offered online, which has been helpful in keeping the organization connected. 

"Whether it be jumping on house party or setting up a Zoom call, we have a lot of people who really utilize and lean on this community just as a way of getting back to normalcy and getting a little bit of community," Rodriguez said.

Though Falk was able to have a relatively successful Passover celebration, she believes that Penn should have given students days off to celebrate, especially given that a significant portion of the undergraduate population that is Jewish.

"It seems kind of disrespectful to not cancel class or allow some dispensation on huge holidays like Passover or Yom Kippur," Falk said. "I just think that Penn has the capability to cancel class on that day, and there are enough students that make it worth it." 

Donover agreed, and said it it would be helpful to have days off for major Jewish holidays so students would feel less stress while worshipping with their families. However, Donover said she feels grateful her professors who are understanding when she needs to miss class or a deadline because of a holiday like Passover.

Overall, Rodriguez said that celebrating in quarantine has given him a newfound appreciation for holiday celebrations and perseverance of his faith community as a whole. 

"It's put everything into perspective," he said.