Two houses of worship eager for in-person return

John and Suzanne Seitz, of Ocala, clean the sanctuary on Wednesday at Tri-County Unitarian Universalists in Summerfield. Suzanne, team leader for buildings and grounds, and John, communications team leader, are prepping the church to reopen at the end of July as virtual services come to an end.

When Tri-County Unitarian Universalists in Summerfield became the first area house of worship to halt in-person services due to COVID-19 in February 2020, its pastor, the Rev. Janet Onnie, joked that the church likely would be “the first to close and last to reopen.” It turns out that she wasn’t that far off. Since Tri-UU’s initial closure, more than 100 area houses of worship shut their doors for at least six weeks because of the pandemic. Two have maintained an all-virtual model today — Congregation Beth Sholom of Leesburg and Tri-UU. “To say the Tri-UU congregation has been resilient

these last 15 to 16 months may be quite the understatement,” Onnie said with a laugh. “If I never hear the word ‘resilient’ again, it will be too soon.”

After some growing pains, the church successfully transitioned to virtual worship, holding services and other activities on Zoom several times a week. Tri-UU plans to maintain an active virtual program even when it resumes in-person worship.

“Right now, the plan is to ‘soft launch’ in-person worship on July 25,” noted Onnie. “It will essentially be hybrid worship, with congregants participating both in person and online.”

Tri-UU’s sanctuary has been modified to honor social-distancing guidelines and congregants are being asked to put on face masks and use hand sanitizer before entering.

“We’re not expecting large crowds with these initial services, given that some of our congregants are snowbirds who are currently up north,” Onnie said.

The transition comes as Onnie prepares for retirement. She announced earlier this year she will lead her last service as Tri-UU’s settled minister on Aug. 1. The church recently announced the Rev. Cynthia Snavely will join Tri-UU as interim minister in August.

“I was hopeful that I could hold my final service at Tri-UU in front of a congregation, and not just on Zoom,” Onnie said. “It looks like that will be the case.”

For a little over a year, Congregation Beth Sholom has been holding Shabbat and other events on Zoom.

“There were some growing pains to start, but our members enjoy participating in activities via Zoom,” said Andrea Kraft, president of Congregation Beth Sholom. “We’ve even heard from former attendees who now live in North Carolina, New York and South Florida who are watching Shabbat and continuing to support us financially.”

Both Kraft and Congregation Beth Sholom Vice President Linda Kost note the synagogue has a “spread out” congregation, with members calling Ocala, Eustis, Tavares and Citrus Hill home, so the two say Zoom gatherings have been welcomed with great enthusiasm.

“Overall, there is a bit of an itch to return to the synagogue, but everyone is happy with our Zoom gatherings,” noted Kost. “All of our active congregants are active on Zoom, and all of our financial supporters continue to support us.”

Congregation Beth Sholom’s physical home is at 315 N. 13th St. in Leesburg. It’s a 70-year-old building that, according to Kraft, needs a little work done before it’s safe to resume events there, such as changing the filters in the air conditioning and putting in ceiling fans to better circulate the air in the building.

“And we are going to make sure the building is Wi-Fi compatible before we resume events there,” added Kost. “Congregation Beth Sholom plans to continue to offer a virtual alternative once in-person worship resumes, but that can’t be done until we get Wi-Fi into the building.”

While the synagogue is hopeful on opening later this year, there are plans to hold in-person worship for the High Holy Days elsewhere. Kraft said Congregation Beth Sholom has been offered what she called “an off-site location in The Villages” to hold Rosh Hashanah services Sept. 6 to 8, as well as Yom Kippur worship Sept. 15 to 16.

“Details on the specific site will be announced soon,” she noted. “We will ask those wishing to attend to RSVP ahead of time so we get an idea on space, parking and the like.”

The announcements come after St. Paul Parish in Belleview reopened its doors to in-person worship July 4 for the first time in 15 months.

“It seems like we have been apart for over 10 years as we were forced to pause all operations at the beginning of the pandemic,” said the Rev. Mark Niznik of St. Paul Parish. “We are blessed that our church family stuck together through thick and thin.”

Niznik and St. Paul Parish used the break from in-person worship to do repairs and renovations to the church campus. Parishioners will find a resurfaced parking lot, new lighting, an upgraded kitchen and air conditioning, remodeled bathrooms and expanded storage space.

St. Paul Parish also plans to continue offering videos of previous Masses online at stpaulfl.com. But there will be one difference from months past.

“We will continue to record our Mass videos, but they will be edited during the week, uploaded on the website on the following Sunday, and remain up for six days,” Niznik noted. “For example, the July 4 Mass will be available to view online from July 11 to 16.”

Senior writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.