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Religious Leaders On How The Pandemic Affected Their Congregations


And finally today, although we're not there yet, we're getting there. More than 4 in 10 people in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And although we're nearing yet another previously unimaginable milestone of 600,000 dead from COVID, the country is starting to recover, with people going back to school and work and travel and all the other things they like to do.

So we thought we would check in - maybe for the final time; we'll see - with a group of people who've been so instrumental in helping the country cope. We're talking about faith leaders. We started connecting with three religious leaders last March, just as lockdowns began, and we've been checking in with them from time to time. We wanted to know how they've weathered all this and how they're doing now.

So joining us once again are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads the Modern Orthodox congregation at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Herzfeld, nice to have you back with us.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: It's an honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: The Reverend Thomas McKenzie serves at the Church of the Redeemer. That's an Anglican church in Nashville, Tenn. Welcome back to you, Reverend McKenzie.

THOMAS MCKENZIE: Great to be here.

MARTIN: And Imam Rizwan Ali is the religious director at the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill. Thank you so much for joining us once again, Imam.

RIZWAN ALI: Honored to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Rabbi Herzfeld, I'm going to start with you because we last spoke with you in December, just as vaccines were beginning to be distributed. As briefly as you can, what have the last couple of months been like for you? And what's the status of services at the synagogue?

HERZFELD: The services are taking place three times a day every day, but we've been conducting them outside. And we did that beginning in July. And we've done it through the winter. And we - you know, it's the new normal that we've adjusted to. And we're talking now about when we are able to go back inside. But for me, the daily reminder of COVID in our presence has been a time to really reflect upon my own mortality and the fact that we have to seize life as it stands in front of us. And that's what these last few months have been like for me.

MARTIN: So I think I hear you say a change is afoot. Would that be accurate, that you - that this period of time has caused you to want to make a change in your own life?

HERZFELD: Well, I think - as a spiritual guide in my life, I feel like anybody who goes through this period of COVID, which is unprecedented for all of us and hasn't really thought about these issues, is missing an opportunity to - that God is sending us a message. And for me, I've been thinking about, what do I want to do with my life? And so I did recently share with the congregation that I discovered I have a different passion, a passion that will take me in a different direction and that I want to open up a house of study, a place where people focus on accessing spirituality through textual study. We call it a yeshiva.

And that's what I've discovered through this period of COVID, where we've been forced to cut down on activities which are not essential and focus on those things that are really the most important parts of our life. And I've discovered that that's where my passion is, and that's what I really want to devote the next chapter of my life to.

MARTIN: Wow. Wow. Well, that's big news. OK. Reverend McKenzie, what about you? How have things been with you and your congregation over the last few months?

MCKENZIE: Much like the rabbi, there's a - obviously, a lot of people in our congregation who are making those kind of decisions. Like, I haven't been to church in 18 months or 15 months. Do I need to go? Or I don't really go to church at all, but, wow, now this faith community seems to have provided a lot for me, and I want to be more engaged. I mean, there's all kinds of questions, I think, that this raises about spirituality and about death and about politics and everything else that people are having to ask themselves right now.

MARTIN: Has navigating the politics within the congregation been a challenge? You know, in some parts of the country, people are kind of all on the same page one way or the other. But it seems like you're in a part of the country, and maybe just even in Nashville, where there's lots of different opinions. Has that been complicated?

MCKENZIE: It has been hugely complicated because if we were a congregation that was just red or just blue, I don't think this would be hard at all. But we are a very mixed congregation. And so it has been - it's been a challenge to try to keep everyone safe while there are such radically different opinions. I mean, I have people emailing me saying, take off your masks and trust Jesus. And then I have people who are like, I am never taking off my mask again as long as I live and everything in between.

MARTIN: Wow. So, Imam Ali, what about you? You and the congregation just observed your second pandemic Ramadan. What was that like? And how are you doing?

ALI: This Ramadan was unique and hopefully is a one-time experience. So last Ramadan, in 2020, we were completely online. This Ramadan of 2021, we were like a hybrid model, where we had the facilities open in a limited capacity, but we were also kind of doing more things online.

And I think for me personally, this whole situation was a very humbling experience because sometimes as an imam, as a faith leader, we're expected to have all the answers. And in this situation, we really didn't. And it was a very iterative process of, you know, communication, discussion, multiple people involved. And I think through those frank conversations, we came to very good solutions which satisfied the needs of the majority of the people in our community.

Obviously, it's hard to satisfy everyone. Some people will say, you are doing too much. Others will accuse us of not doing enough. But I think that I'm content that we did the best that we could. And I'm very appreciative of the cooperation and the understanding of the community.

MARTIN: Imam, can I stick with you for a second? I want to pick up on something that Reverend McKenzie said, which is loss. He was speaking of loss in a way that I had not considered, which is that people get - there's been a lot of turmoil over the past year over a lot of things. And that has led to - for some people to leave. But there's also been the loss because of the sickness itself. You know, right now, many people who have family back in India or close ties to India are in a deep pain over how much suffering is going on there. And so, imam, I wanted to ask you, like, how have you dealt with this question of loss on such a massive scale? Have you lost congregants? Or have they lost family members? And how have you helped people deal with that?

ALI: Definitely was a very difficult situation. And, yes, we have people within the community that have gotten sick and are - some have passed away, and some are hospitalized. But a lot more people have relatives overseas, specifically India, that have lost relatives. So it's just a very difficult situation. But I think it's like a daily reminder to everybody of the fragility of life and, you know, the importance of taking advantage of our opportunities that we have. And, you know, we try to encourage people to make amends with each other and take advantage of the blessings of God and, you know, try to come together as a community and try to be there for each other and support in whatever way we can.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you hope will last after this year? I mean, I know that it seems sometimes sort of disrespectful to some people who have lost loved ones to talk about, you know, silver linings. But is there something from this past year, year and a half, maybe even sort of going on to two now that you hope will persist, even despite the fact that it was so difficult and traumatic? Rabbi, why don't you start?

HERZFELD: Well, I definitely think there's a lot of things that we hope will last, which means that COVID forced us, in many cases, to make the changes we already know - knew we needed to make. But for me, the most important thing is that - the message is, focus on what's important because our time is running out. That's what I hope will last, that every day we wake up and say, if this were my last day, would I - what I what would I be doing? And that's what we should be focusing on every single day of our lives.

MARTIN: Reverend McKenzie, what about you? Is there something you hope will last despite all the trauma of the past year?

MCKENZIE: Well, I have to agree with the rabbi. We, in our tradition, have a tradition of memento mori, keeping your death always before you and therefore knowing that this is the only life you have. And I'm hopeful that COVID will, you know, push that even closer to people's faces. The other thing I hope, though, is that on the other side of this, that those of us who went through it together will be able to look back at our shared trauma and gain strength from it.

MARTIN: And, imam, what about you? Is there anything that you hope will persist despite the difficulties and trauma of the past year?

ALI: You know, I think that if you asked us couple of years ago how we would experience Ramadan in a lockdown or a limited capacity, honestly, I wouldn't be able to tell you. But now, having lived through that experience, we realized that putting our faith and trust in God and doing the concept of shura, of, you know, collaboration, we were able to get through it together in the safest way possible while allowing Ramadan in our community to still be spiritually connected. Another important benefit that I feel from this is the - embracing technology and having people given access and their own time on demand to take sermons and classes and lectures so that people can benefit and we can expand our reach through the use of technology.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for talking with us. This has really been a delight to have the opportunity to speak with you from time to time over the course of this. And, you know, I don't know if we'll talk again as a group, but it's certainly been a pleasure getting to know all three of you and speaking with all of you. And, you know, I hope that whatever course you take in the future that it will be a fruitful one.

We heard from Imam Rizwan Ali of the Islamic Center of Naperville in Naperville, Ill., the Reverend Thomas McKenzie from the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville, Tenn., and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue here in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for joining us today.

HERZFELD: Thank you very much. Thanks for having us.

MCKENZIE: Great to be here.

ALI: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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