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This Easter, outdoor services and egg hunts resurrect some sense of normalcy

The United Church of Christ in Keene hasn’t held an in-person service since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life in New Hampshire.

That will change early Sunday morning, when congregants will gather just outside the church, on Central Square, to celebrate an Easter sunrise service.

“So, to reconvene on this holiest day, and to see one another in person ... it just will really embody the joy of the day,” Rev. Cynthia Bagley, the church’s senior minister, said.

Christians worldwide have held sunrise services for hundreds of years, commemorating the Biblical account of Easter Sunday in which several women who were followers of Jesus went to his tomb, only to find he had risen from the dead.

“As the sun rises, the Son rises. That’s, I think, one of the significances of sunrise services,” said Rev. Jamie Hamilton, the rector of All Saints’ Church in Peterborough. She, along with two other ministers, will lead a sunrise service Sunday at Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge.

But this year, after months of virtual church celebrations and coronavirus restrictions, these outdoor services gain even greater importance, Bagley said.

“It has powerful meaning today, I think, as we’re entering into spring and the days are getting longer,” she said. “And there’s certainly signs and seeds of hopefulness all around us. I think this becomes … a very powerful event this year, just symbolizing that this will end, and new life is coming ahead.”

And that these opportunities to gather safely for in-person worship fall on Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, only lends more magnitude to the occasion, Hamilton added.

“I think the fact that the vaccines are rolling out, that people feel safer, a sense of hope is in the air,” she said. “And then to have that all on Easter, that celebrates the joy and the hope. I think it’s a wonderful coming together of the two.”

The Central Square sunrise service begins at 6:30 a.m., and will move forward rain or shine, Bagley said, though the forecast looks promising. The United Church of Christ has celebrated a sunrise service for the past decade or so, aside from last year, and typically gets a crowd of about 25. This year, Bagley said she has no idea how many people to expect, but added that the church is requiring attendees to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

The annual Easter sunrise service at Cathedral of the Pines dates back at least 70 years, according to Patricia Vargas, executive director of the nonprofit open-air venue. The service, which starts at 6 a.m. and is open to people of all faiths, normally draws 200-300 people, Vargas said, making it one of the cathedral’s largest annual events.

This year, though, Vargas said Cathedral of the Pines can safely accommodate about 150 people outdoors. If the weather’s bad, the service will move inside, where only 75 people would be allowed, so Vargas encourages people to arrive early.

And as local churches prepare to host these sorts of sunrise services, many area communities are turning to the great outdoors to safely bring back another holiday tradition: Easter egg hunts. Local recreation departments, including Keene Parks and Recreation, required pre-registration for this year’s hunts to limit the number of people gathering for them, and are moving them to larger spaces to allow more room for physical distancing.

Keene’s Easter egg hunt, which has already filled all 20 slots for each of its three age groups, had been at the Recreation Center in recent years, but is moving to Wheelock Park this year to ensure the three groups can be separated, Recreation Programmer Brianne Rafford-Varley said.

“We are so excited to be able to do this, and really wanted to try and figure out a way to do it outside, safely,” she said, adding that masks will be required. “Because this for us at the Rec Center was the first big event that got canceled last year.”

The Swanzey Recreation Department is also moving its Easter egg hunt to a larger space this year, from its typical home at the Mount Caesar soccer fields to the Lane Field Complex on South Road, Recreation Director Ashlee Crosby said. Registration for the event’s 85 spots closed last week, she added, to give organizers time to finalize the details to make it safe and fun for those who attend.

“I just feel like these kids have to have some form of normalcy back in their lives, that they’ll still be able to see the Easter Bunny and get their eggs, while still being safe,” Crosby said.

Other communities, like Hinsdale, are passing on a traditional Easter egg hunt this year, instead opting for a drive-thru celebration. The Hinsdale Beautification Committee is hosting an hourlong event, open only to town residents, at 11 a.m. in the Hinsdale Middle/High School parking lot. Children who come will get a gift bag with small toys and candy, and a chance to see the Easter Bunny, Committee Chairwoman Karen Atkins said.

“I think [it’s important] just to get things to as close to normal as we can be, to … just to let the kids celebrate Easter,” she said. “They get excited when they see the Easter Bunny. ... Hopefully next year, we’ll get back to having a more hands-on event.”

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For Passover, local Jewish leaders reflect on recent hardship, hope — and Zoom

Dayenu. The Hebrew word, often translated as “it would have been enough,” is the refrain of a lively tune sung at Passover seder — a reminder to be thankful for what you have.

If an expression of gratitude seems ill-suited for Passover — which remembers the Israelites’ toil under, and exodus from, Egyptian slavery — well, that contradiction is the point.

After a particularly trying year for many people, due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Sentinel asked several members of the local Jewish community how they have reflected on the word dayenu during this Passover week.

Daniel Aronson is rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Achim, having joined the West Keene synagogue last summer. Cantor Kate Judd serves as spiritual leader of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community. And Daniel Mariaschin, a North Swanzey native, is chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith International.

Aronson and Judd responded to The Sentinel’s questions via email; Mariaschin was interviewed by phone.

Dayenu, the idea that “it would have been enough,” is a theme of Passover. What are you grateful for this year, especially given recent hardships caused by the pandemic?

Daniel Aronson: I am grateful that my [wife] Beth, my daughter Katie and I were brought to Keene by forces Divine, human and happenstance. We love the communities we’ve discovered at our places of work, i.e. Keene State College and Congregation Ahavas Achim, and at my daughter’s school and extracurricular activities. We also appreciate the natural beauty around us. Winter was magical with just the right amount of snow adorning the trees, and it was made even more magical by the frequent visits to our birdfeeders by an awesome assortment of hungry feathered neighbors ...

I am grateful that our parents have made it through the pandemic in good health and that they have all been fully vaccinated.

I am grateful that my daughter and adult son are thriving in all their endeavors.

I am grateful to be lovingly married to someone who is passionate about making the world a better place for all and who supports me in my efforts to do the same.

Kate Judd: I am deeply grateful that I met a wonderful life partner [Randall Silverman] during this crazy year. I’m also grateful for my wonderful congregation, the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, which has remained vibrant throughout these challenging [times].

Daniel Mariaschin: I would say four things. The first is to be able to read the Passover story in an environment of freedom. There were many times in history when the reading of the story of the Exodus from Egypt was prohibited. To be able to sit at the table and read the story in freedom, about really history’s first example of a movement for freedom, is something I think we have to be grateful for.

The second thing would be gratitude for Zoom. It wasn’t that long ago that we did not have the technical ability to bring people together, even at times in this particular public health crisis ... So the ability to work with colleagues over Zoom, to be together with friends ... and also to have friends and family at seder. One of our seders was with family in Israel, so we were able to bring everybody together ...

The third thing is being thankful for the researchers who produced these vaccines. We need them ... It’s essential to getting everybody back up to speed. But it’s also very easy to take certain things for granted, and the people who worked so hard and so quickly to produce this vaccine is something that we always could remember and take note of.

The fourth thing for me, as one who works in a Jewish community and who supports an Israel which is at peace with its neighbors, we were very pleased back in September to have had the Abraham Accords — the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Sudan and [later] Morocco. These are extremely important, giant steps toward peace in the region and is something that we’re grateful for, but that we would like to see continue and expand to other countries, as well.

Has the pandemic made it more difficult to connect with family and friends for Passover this year? If so, how did you observe?

Aronson: The pandemic has challenged us to celebrate all kinds of events with our families and communities in creative ways. As such, I’ve found, we’ve been able to connect in ways that allow more people to come together than usual, that invite the inclusion of creative elements in our celebrations that we might not have considered under “normal” circumstances, and that break us free from the complacency that can dampen our joy and gratitude.

Last year, from our home in Houston, TX, my family and I joined my parents, siblings and their families by Zoom for a seder, the home-based ritual meal that commemorates the exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ liberation from slavery. It was the first time in decades that we had all been together to celebrate Passover ...

This year, having thrown myself into creating what I hope was a joyful and meaningful online seder for the [Congregation Ahavas Achim] community, I didn’t have the energy to replicate last year’s family seder. Beth, Katie and I had a small seder at home and were joined by my son Jake, who Zoomed in “virtually” from Denver. Though I missed the excitement of last year’s family reunion, this year’s seder was no less special; the intimacy of the experience enhanced my sense of gratitude for my children and my spouse.

On the following night, I was thankful for the opportunity to come together with about 40 people from our CAA family. I included in the seder a video of our religious school children reciting one of the central pieces of the seder, known as the Four Questions ... I also included two music videos of traditional Passover songs prepared especially for the seder by super talented congregants, Rebecca Sayles and Eleanor Kaufman, respectively. It took a lot of work for Rebecca, Eleanor, and the children and their families to send me videos on relatively short notice, but I think the whole congregation was extremely grateful not only for their effort but for how they lifted up all of our spirits.

Judd: Most of my family is in Israel. Last year I had to return from Israel before observing Passover with them. This year, because of current medical challenges, I was unable to celebrate Passover. I said a blessing over some matzah, and sang a verse of Avadim Hayinu — “Last year we were slaves, now we are free people.” I hope we are all freed from COVID restrictions soon!

Mariaschin: I have two sisters and their families who live [in Israel]. My wife is Israeli, and her family is there. We normally go over for the holiday. So the distance, even with Zoom, could be felt because you really want to be with family. This is a family holiday. Passover, some people say, is the most observed holiday in the Jewish community. We missed something this year by not being there, but having Zoom made it a lot closer and a lot easier.

The seder typically ends with everyone saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” What do you hope Passover looks like in 2022?

Aronson: At the end of our seders, we all said, “Next year in-person.” I pray that we are all well enough to make that happen in [Hebrew year] 5782/2022. Also, I pray that our seders happen against a backdrop of a world in harmony with itself, a world in which loving kindness, civility and justice in all its forms prevail. That is what “shalom” (peace and wholeness) looks like and that is the true meaning of “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Judd: Wherever I am, I hope I am celebrating with real live people!

Mariaschin: I hope, certainly, that the pandemic is behind us. That we can observe this holiday not only around the table, but that we can go out and not have to worry about all of the conditions and restrictions that we’ve been facing over the past year. Certainly, we want very much ... a year of peace for Israel together with its neighbors ...

The holiday story that we have is thousands of years old, but the basic message of this holiday remains the same. It doesn’t wax and wane with history ... [It is] freedom to be able to express one’s thoughts, one’s ideas, freedom of speech — all the freedoms that we enjoy. When you think about how far ahead of their time the ancient Israelites were under the leadership of Moses, in aspiring to that kind of freedom and to wander for 40 years in the desert in order to get it. It’ll be good to be back to normal, but the story, of course, remains the same, and we look forward to reading the story again next year.

As coronavirus infections and vaccinations surge, hope collides with dread

When Laura Forman arrived at work a few weeks ago, something was missing. The refrigerated truck for bodies that had overflowed Kent Hospital’s morgue during the COVID-19 surge was gone.

“Coming up to the hospital and seeing that space where it had been, I cried,” said Forman, the physician who heads the Warwick, R.I., hospital’s emergency department. “It was the most powerful symbol of hope.”

But this week, hope gave way, yet again, to concern. The rate of coronavirus infections is rising again — in Rhode Island and across the nation. It is clouding the success of the U.S. vaccination program, at least for now.

“We’ve been watching the numbers really carefully, and the difference over the last week has been palpable for us,” Forman said. “It’s worry at this point. It’s worry about our community. It’s worry about our families, because most of us have unvaccinated kids and family at home.”

The virus that has kept an entire planet toggling between hope and dread for the past 14 months is having yet another go at the United States. The spread of highly contagious new variants of the virus, coupled with prematurely relaxed safety precautions in some places, has set off new alarms, all the way up to President Joe Biden.

“You look out the front window and it’s raining,” said Nirav Shah, director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “but from the back window, it’s sunny. And your house is literally on the cusp of the storm and you don’t know which way it’s going to go — stormy, or is it going to be sunny? That’s sort of where we are in COVID.”

The virus that has cleaved us into categories of vulnerability has found one more division in society — the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. Nearly 100 million Americans are enjoying the relative security that comes with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. The rest are still waiting.

Three days after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, lifted his state’s mask mandate and restaurant occupancy limits in early March, Houston waitress Tracy McKenna said she served a customer who complained about her soda and food tasting odd. Problems with taste and smell are telltale signs of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Four days later, McKenna, who is not vaccinated, had trouble breathing and tested positive for the coronavirus. The symptoms advanced to a severe cough and fatigue. McKenna’s partner and toddler also contracted the virus.

“What little protections we had were out the window,” McKenna, 41, said in an interview conducted over Twitter because of her symptoms. “I was/am incredibly frustrated, because I was already putting myself at risk dealing with people who couldn’t care less about me, and now there would be a lot more of them.”

In Wellington, Fla., nurse and lactation consultant Deborah Montgomery has no such frustration. She was fully vaccinated in early February.

“I kind of felt a little guilty that I was able to get it so easily because I’m a health-care worker,” said Montgomery, who is also a union delegate at her hospital, Palms West, in Loxahatchee, Fla. “I have 100 percent relief. Knowing that I’m not going to transmit this to any of my little, itty-bitty patients that I take care of, or that I’m going to take it from one room to another room. I don’t worry about taking it home to my family.”

It was inevitable that some people would receive vaccines ahead of others, even with the shots now being distributed at a rate of about 2.8 million per day. A panel of experts, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, recommended the priorities adopted by the federal government, pushing health-care workers and vulnerable nursing home residents and staff members to the front of the line.

But it was not a given that, with the end so tantalizingly near, the country would face the possibility of another major surge in infections. That is the result of the growth of highly transmissible variants of the virus, including one first detected in the United Kingdom that is now responsible for 26 percent of U.S. infections, along with some governors’ decisions to throw open places where people can gather indoors and rescind mask requirements. Those moves came despite numerous pleas from federal officials that it was too early.

“We can’t afford to let our guard down,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at Wednesday’s White House briefing on the virus. “We are so close, so very close to getting back to the everyday activities we all miss so much.”

As that progress occurs, infections and hospitalizations are increasing. The seven-day rolling average of cases, considered the most reliable barometer of infections, reached 66,009 on Thursday, according to reports from state health departments analyzed by The Washington Post.

On Wednesday, Walensky said the United States was averaging 4,900 hospitalizations per day, 300 more than the previous week.

Case counts are rising sharply in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, West Virginia and elsewhere. In Rhode Island, where Forman is preparing for another spike, the rate of positive tests ticked up from 2 percent last week to 2.4 percent this week, according to state data. That is still well below the crisis level the state reached in December, but it is heading the wrong way.

Other states are experiencing declines in case counts, some of them substantial, including California, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Arizona.

Almost nowhere is the crisis worse than Michigan, which has seen its seven-day average rise from 1,030 on Feb. 21 to 5,663 on March 31. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, recently asked the Biden administration to surge vaccine doses to the hard-hit state and other hot spots. One local official there said the vaccination effort is lacking in intensity.

“This is the worst emergency crisis that we’ve been in our lifetime,” said Pamela Pugh, who was the chief public health officer for the city of Flint during the height of the city’s water crisis and a longtime resident of Saginaw. “They say that we’re in a race for time, [but] we can’t say that, we can’t know that and then distribute the vaccine in the way that we have.”

Likewise, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat who has been in a legal brawl with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, to preserve his city’s mask mandate, said Abbott is confusing the public.

“Communication and messaging is really important, and that’s why I was real frustrated when the governor said ‘We have to remove our mask mandate, but I still urge everyone to wear masks,’ ” Adler said. “In my mind, that’s a contradictory message to people. They don’t know what to believe at that point.”

A spokeswoman for Abbott, Renae Eze, said in a statement, “People have ‘learned and mastered’ how to protect themselves and loved ones from coronavirus and ‘do not need the government to tell them how to do so.’ ”

Jody Lanard, a physician who worked for nearly two decades as a pandemic communications adviser to the World Health Organization, said public health authorities need to acknowledge they are sending mixed messages, some good and some bad.

“If they refuse to bless any normal behavior, people are either going to make it up for themselves, or go to the weird side,” she said, referring to conspiracy theories. “For CDC to have some authority, they should be the ones who give everyone a Plan B.”

“One way to frame that message is to say, ‘We wish everybody would do x y z, but since people, even our own friends, are not going to along with that, we have to have ways to do that as safely as possible,’ ” Lanard said.

Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former media relations director at the CDC, said in public health, one foot is always on the gas and the other is always on the brake.

“There’s a lot of caution about what to say, and that’s probably driven by fear,” Nowak said. “If you’re not cautious, and something bad happens, people will hold you responsible for that. If I warn you and something doesn’t happen, that’s not as bad as if I don’t warn you and something bad does happen.”

In Rhode Island, Forman said she will watch closely and hope for vaccinations to outrun the virus. At this point, she believes, no one can be blamed for the way they respond to a grueling, once-in-a-century crisis.

“A year into this, we’ve spent so much time, all of us, trying to be thoughtful and [respect] the need to balance safety with the need for connection and the need for sanity. So I think one of the things I’ve learned for myself is I can’t judge anyone else for the decisions they are making.”