By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local

Houses of worship are used to seeing their congregations shift and change over time. That’s normal. But over the last year, “normal” rarely came into play. 

“We lose about a dozen members annually, but this year was harder because we didn’t really have a way to bring in new members,” said Farrell Borine, director of operations for Bnai Keshet Synagogue on South Fullerton Avenue.

In June of last year, New Jersey entered Stage Two of its pandemic reopening plan, which included allowing houses of worship to operate at limited capacity. But attendance at the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church remained low, the Rev. Amilcar Benito Prado — better known as Father Benny — said. Most congregants still attended remotely. 

Those virtual platforms would prove to be critical not only for navigating the coronavirus pandemic, but potentially for setting a path toward a robust future. 

It was difficult to get webcams or audio-video equipment early in the pandemic — when they were available, they came at a steep predium. So, Prado said, Immaculate started with the tools available.

“We started by using an iPhone and streamed on our parish Facebook page. We then invested in a permanent camera and streaming equipment, which has allowed us to livestream simultaneously on our website, Facebook and YouTube pages, allowing us to reach more people.”

Immaculate Conception and Bnai Keshet both started to see a welcome trend — people who might never have come to their services, or who hadn’t been able to in years, were attending virtually. 

“We have actually seen an increase in membership, and with livestreaming, we have had many people watch Masses from over 40 states and six countries,” Prado said. “This online exposure has allowed members who have moved away to tune in and once again be a part of our worship celebration.”

Borine said plenty of people have found Bnai Keshet online in the pandemic, through Instagram or Facebook.

“We have people who aren’t members become regulars,” he said.

Spaces like Facebook and YouTube have provided another benefit — recordings of services remain available after they’re over, making them a destination for people who can’t attend (remotely or otherwise) while they’re taking place. That’s also true of classes and events conducted online.

The virtual services, Prado and Borine said, both helped retain members and provided an option for non-members who can’t find places close to them, but still want to be connected to their faith.

The path for converting viewers into members is relatively straightforward, Prado said: “We have had new members join throughout the pandemic. Our process is easy. New members can register on our website and start receiving our weekly encouraging emails immediately. We hope all become active members of our faith community when we have more opportunities to gather in person.” 

When it comes to tithes and donations, many churches were either already there or well on their way to being fully automated.

“We offer the option to give to our parish through our giving platform, which has a link on our website to anyone who would like to donate. Throughout the pandemic, many parishioners continued to send their offerings through the mail or virtually,” Prado said.

Borine said even before the pandemic, Bnai Keshet was exploring streaming services.

“We realized that we do have many people who are snowbirds spending their winters in Arizona, Florida or Israel,” he said. “We also have people traveling throughout the year or people who have moved permanently.  People get older and move to warmer climates, and people still want to be invested in the community, so it only made sense to look into it.”

Since February, New Jersey has allowed houses of worship to hold indoor services and activities at 50% of their normal capacity. Several have told Montclair Local they expect to hold some outdoor services, but expand indoor practices slowly and cautiously. 

Imam Kevin Dawud of Masjid Al Wadud on Bloomfield Avenue hadn’t yet returned a message seeking comment for this article, but previously told Montclair Local his congregation had only met on a very limited basis in the pandemic, as many members don’t yet feel safe in crowds. 

The vote of confidence from the state could prompt some to return, Dawud said in February.

“With the greater flexibility, we’ll be able to expand,” he said.

An earlier version of this story referred to Borine by the wrong pronouns.