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Credit: Ava Cruz

Physical distancing measures and size limits on gatherings have created unique challenges for students of faith in the Penn community, altering the way they worship and conduct religious practices.

Many practicing students of faith have felt a loss of community since federal public health and safety guidelines on limiting gatherings went into place in March.

The pandemic has disrupted acts of communal prayer and ritual for religious students, who often practice their traditions through in-person gatherings. After religious services and programming shifted to virtual platforms, spiritual leaders struggled to sustain the social aspects of their community traditions.

Some Jewish students have faced challenges in practicing Shabbat, the day of rest described in the Torah. From attending prayer services with friends and family to sharing dinner, Shabbat has a communal element that has been affected by social distancing guidelines, Rabbi Gabe Greenberg of Penn Hillel said.

Rising College senior and Penn Hillel President Shira Silver said the diminished sense of community on Shabbat has been a challenge for her, especially since said she often spent most of the time in the Hillel building with friends from various Jewish backgrounds.

"A highlight is Friday night dinner, when the dining hall is packed,” Silver said. “The idea of not being able to eat with my community and pray with my community has been very challenging.” 

Like Silver, rising College senior and Muslim Students Association member Shaina Zafar said she missed the sense of community she normally experiences during Ramadan. 

Ramadan, which took place this year from April 23 to May 23, is the Muslim holy month of fasting, and a time of discipline, gratitude, and selflessness, Zafar said. During Ramadan, families and mosques often host community dinners for Iftar, or “breaking of the fast.” Ramadan culminates in the holiday Eid al-Fitr, in which families and friends gather in a community celebration. 

“I definitely missed being able to break fast with my friends and cook meals together," Zafar said. “The biggest challenge we’re trying to tackle is, how do you create a sense of community even when people aren't there in person?”

Rising College senior and Penn Catholic Newman Community secretary Danni Caby said she missed celebrating Holy Week in April, the week leading up to Easter, with other Catholic students on campus at the Newman Center. During Holy Week, Penn for Jesus usually organizes a 24-hour prayer tent on Locust Walk where Christian students can gather. 

“Different Christian communities on campus don't always celebrate things together, and I feel like Holy Week is really a time where we all do. It was sad that we missed out on that this year,” Caby said.

Rising College junior and member of the University's Hindu & Jain Association Deepti Tantry said she missed celebrating Holi, a Hindu festival that honors the triumph of good over evil, on campus in March this year. The Hindu & Jain Association typically helps host Holi on College Green, where many students gather together and throw colorful powders on each other to celebrate the festival. 

“The whole point of Holi is to come together with a large group of people and throw colors and water and to dance,” Tantry said. “It’s not really one of those holidays that you can celebrate on your own.” 

In addition to holidays, regular prayer and worship have been upended by the coronavirus restrictions.

Patrick Travers, director of Penn and Drexel Newman Apostolates, said that although the Newman Center has livestreamed Masses, parishioners cannot experience the sacraments, particularly receiving communion at Mass, because of physical distancing measures.

Rising Engineering senior and Penn Catholic Newman Community Vice President Eugene Enclona echoed Travers’ thoughts and said Catholic Mass does not translate neatly to a virtual platform because parishioners are unable to receive communion, or the Body of Christ.

For some Jewish students who refrain from using technology during Shabbat, virtual Shabbat prayer services pose a challenge. Some synagogues have chosen to allow the limited use of technology during this time to hold virtual services, while others have not held services at all since guidelines prohibiting gatherings went into effect, Rabbi Greenberg said.

He added that many of the prayers some observant Jewish students recite daily are meant to be said with a minyan, or quorum of ten people, which is not possible right now. 

Jewish and Muslim students have also experienced limited access to Kosher and Halal food, respectively. To compensate for this, Rabbi Levi Haskelevitch said the Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Penn has been distributing free Kosher meals to local students and families since the pandemic began. 

“We don’t only do it for the Kosher aspect. We do it to reach out to students and give them some love during this time," Rabbi Haskelevitch said. "Some of them might be alone, missing the sense of community and connection around Shabbat and holidays."

Zafar said that although some Halal markets have remained open during the pandemic, grocery delivery services like Instacart are not always accessible to Halal retailers. She said if her family is not able to get Halal meat, they substitute meals with vegetarian options.

“My parents have to leave the house in order to get Halal food, and at times my dad has driven literally across state lines to get Halal food if needed,” Zafar said.

Despite these challenges, difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic have strengthened the faith of some students, who have turned to their faith for comfort during this time.

“During a time where not many things are certain, I believe that you can use your faith to make yourself stronger, mentally, spiritually, and physically,” rising College sophomore and Penn Muslim Students Association member Neehal Hussain said. 

Like Hussain, Enclona said he finds optimism in his Catholic faith, particularly in difficult times.

“[My faith] is what gives me hope and something to look forward to,” Enclona said. “We will come out stronger than what would have been if it weren't for this pandemic.”