In Jerusalem's Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

Jul 25, 2020
Originally published on July 26, 2020 6:16 am

"The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams like the air over industrial cities," wrote Yehuda Amichai, one of the city's beloved poets, in 1980. "It's hard to breathe."

Now it's hard to pray.

In the historic walled Old City, the beating heart of a place sacred to millions around the world, a second wave of the coronavirus has challenged devout communities to rethink how to pray safely. This spring, Jerusalem's revered religious sites closed partially or fully as prayer gatherings were blamed for some infections. Now Israel permits houses of prayer to operate under restrictions.

New customs accompany old worship rituals: a grid of prayer quadrants at the Western Wall. Only clergy permitted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "Place your carpet here" stickers on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Mosque grounds to keep worshipers distanced.

Here are some of the newest rituals surrounding Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayer in Jerusalem's Old City.

Bring your own carpet

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven, reopened in late May after Muslim authorities closed it to the public for more than two months — its first lengthy closure since the Crusaders captured it in 1099.

Muslim men practice social distancing during Friday prayers next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City in July.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

Worshipers are now asked to perform the wudu, the ritual washing of parts of the body, at home. Volunteers at the mosque provide hand sanitizer and masks. Participants are also asked to bring prayer carpets from home, to avoid touching the carpeted floor inside the mosque building.

"I have never used as many small carpets as nowadays," said Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the mosque advisory council, sitting next to his yellow carpet outside the mosque. "It just goes to the washing machine, because you don't know what it has been contaminated with."

Mustafa Abu Sway, on the Al-Aqsa Mosque advisory council, sits outside the mosque next to his yellow carpet. Worshipers are asked to bring their own prayer carpets from home now. Abu Sway says he's never laundered so many carpets in his life.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

Israel restricts prayer gatherings in Jerusalem — initially capped at 50 worshipers, then 19, and now 10 — but Al-Aqsa is hosting several thousand every Friday for the main prayers.

That's partly to maintain a Palestinian presence at a compound also revered by Jews as the site where the Biblical temple once stood. Orthodox and right-wing Israeli Jewish activists are increasingly paying politically sensitive visits to the mosque grounds and lobbying to allow Jewish prayer there, which Palestinians see as hostile efforts to seize control at the site.

Muslim officials also believe they can hold prayers safely by spilling over into the mosque's vast outdoor complex. Stickers on the floor show worshipers how to keep spaced at a healthy distance, with partial success.

"It would be a pity if everything is shut down. I mean, you need a place, a source of hope, a source of light, to invigorate people and give them a break," said Abu Sway.

A recent sermon implored worshipers not to spread false rumors about the pandemic and to take it seriously. After prayers on a scorching Friday, thousands poured out of the Old City holding prayer carpets on their heads and refreshing frozen pops in their hands.

Celebrating Mass on Facebook Live

Nearby, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, is closed due to the pandemic — except to the clergy who continue their daily rituals inside, behind its wooden doors.

Father Amjad Sabbara celebrates Jerusalem's main Roman Catholic Mass at St. Saviour's Monastery — on Facebook Live.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

A short walk away, St. Saviour's Monastery hosts Jerusalem's main Roman Catholic Mass, with a small women's choir and no congregation onsite.

For months, Father Amjad Sabbara held a series of mini-Masses, with 19 participants each, so everyone in his Palestinian parish could attend a socially distanced Mass at least once a month. Now, with a second wave of infections afflicting Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods, congregants watch from home on Facebook Live.

For months, Father Amjad Sabbara held a series of mini-Masses so everyone in his community could attend a socially distanced Mass at least once a month. But a second wave of infections afflicting Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhood changed that.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

"It's better, you know, for the protection of the people and the families," Sabbara says. "It's better to stay in their homes. And in this way, we can pray together."

It's in their homes where his congregants need him most. Sabbara has set up a special counseling hotline and says he's getting a lot of calls about family tensions from being cooped up at home during the pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, he offered his homily in Arabic and raised a golden goblet and round communion wafer, all in front of a web camera.

Somehow, two devoted churchgoers managed to slip into the closed, cavernous church. They were allowed to stay.

Yehezkel Cahn, 71, runs morning prayers at the Ramban Synagogue in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

No kissing the Torah scroll

Jewish prayers continue at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Biblical temple compound. But the outdoor prayer plaza is now divided into quadrants designed to keep worship groups small.

Nearby, at the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City's Jewish quarter, longtime elementary school teacher Yehezkel Cahn, 71, oversees the morning prayers — for several dozen worshipers sitting six feet apart in designated seats — as if the synagogue were his classroom. He's drawn cartoons with handwritten instructions: No wearing masks on your chin. No turning on the ceiling fan.

A young worshiper passes the signs and cartoons Yehezkel Cahn has tacked up at the entrance to the small synagogue. The number 19 in red (at right) indicates the maximum number of worshipers allowed indoors, per Israeli government guidelines at the time.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

"Because the corona goes from his nose to my mouth," Cahn says.

Another sign reads: "Don't try to be a wise guy! You have no permission to use the prayer books of the synagogue."

Yehezkel Cahn at the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City.
Daniel Estrin / NPR

Cahn wears blue surgical gloves as he cradles the Torah scroll, turning his back as he passes a veteran white-haired worshiper. He says the man often forgets the synagogue's new health rule against kissing the scroll, a traditional sign of respect performed by touching the scroll and then kissing one's own hand as it is paraded around the congregation.

"I don't want him to kiss," Cahn says.

Cahn repeatedly looks at his watch, to usher in three shifts of morning worshipers in 45-minute slots. He's keeping the prayer groups small. Inside the synagogue, he allows no more than 10 men. That's the minimum quorum required by Orthodox Judaism for Torah readings and certain prayers — and the government's latest restriction on indoor gatherings is 10 people. Whoever doesn't get a seat indoors prays in the courtyard.

As with efforts by Jerusalem's other major faiths, it's an attempt to protect worshipers' safety during the pandemic while permitting the uninterrupted rhythm of religious life.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In the U.S., there continues to be a question of whether it's safe to hold prayer services during the pandemic. We wondered how people in Jerusalem are doing this at sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims and where virus cases are rising. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Al-Aqsa Mosque is where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven. It's one of the holiest sites in Islam. It was closed for months and reopened a few weeks ago.

Friday prayers have just ended. And I'm walking and seeing a big stream of people walking out. Almost everyone's wearing masks.

MUSTAFA ABU SWAY: We decided to reopen the mosque by taking precautions.

ESTRIN: Mustafa Abu Sway is on the mosque advisory council.

SWAY: Like, for example, when I entered today, we had a couple of youngsters, one of them holding a bottle of sanitizer. And the other one was holding, you know, a bunch of free masks for those who forgot to bring a mask with them.

ESTRIN: Worshippers are asked to do their ritual washing at home, not on the mosque grounds. The elderly and sick are asked to stay home. In the sermon, they're told to take the pandemic seriously. And stickers on the floor say place your carpet here to try to distance worshippers.

SWAY: I've never used as many small carpets as nowadays because after I use it at the mosque, I go home. Sometimes, it just goes to the washing machine because you don't know what it has been contaminated with. So it's different.

ESTRIN: Most other mosques are closed or restricted to small numbers. But the Al-Aqsa Mosque is hosting thousands, partly to maintain a Palestinian presence at a site also sacred to Jews. And Muslim officials say they can do it safely by spilling over into the vast outdoor complex.

SWAY: It would be a pity if everything is shut down. I mean, you need a place, a source of hope, a source of life that will invigorate people and give them a break.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Hallelujah.

ESTRIN: A short walk in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City brings you to St. Saviour's Church. It hosts Jerusalem's main Catholic mass but now with a small choir and no congregation.

AMJAD SABBARA: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Father Amjad Sabbara offers a homily and raises a golden goblet and round wafer in front of a web camera. For months, he held a bunch of mini masses, 19 participants each, so everyone in his community could attend this socially distanced mass once a month. Now congregants watch from home on Facebook Live.

SABBARA: I've said it's better, you know, for the protection of the people and the families. You know, it's better to stay in their homes. And in this way, we can pray together, you know?

ESTRIN: Nearby, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion, is closed except to clergy. Jewish prayers continue at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient biblical Temple compound. But the outdoor prayer plaza is divided into prayer quadrants that keep worship groups small.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ESTRIN: The government has blamed synagogue gatherings for helping spread the virus. But it allows them to continue with restrictions. At this synagogue in the Old City, school teacher Yehezkel Cahn runs the morning prayers and strictly enforces new hygiene rules.

YEHEZKEL CAHN: I say to them, don't open the fan because the corona goes from his nose to my mouth. You'll see also here I don't want to use the books.

ESTRIN: Why don't you want people taking these prayer books here?

CAHN: Because many, many touch it. The corona is on the books.

ESTRIN: He ushers in new groups of worshippers in 45-minute slots. He wears blue surgical gloves to cradle the Torah scroll and turns his back as he passes an elderly man who often forgets the new rules against kissing the scroll.

CAHN: I don't want him to kiss.

ESTRIN: But Orthodox Judaism doesn't allow Torah readings and certain prayers without a quorum of 10 men.

CAHN: There's many things that you cannot say if you are alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ESTRIN: Like their Christian and Muslim neighbors, they're making changes, but they want to maintain the prayer routines they followed their whole lives. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.