TORONTO -- The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation of gatherings large and small across Canada, and religious ceremonies are no exception.

This means that for families celebrating Easter and Passover, this year’s festivities will look much different from any other. With the closure of places of worship like churches and synagogues, many will be spending their holidays at home.

But despite not being able to attend religious services in person, many are being given the option to do so virtually.

This is thanks to a number of organizations across the globe that are livestreaming their ceremonies. Christians will be able to celebrate Easter through virtual services, and those of Jewish faith can observe Passover by tuning in to online seders. Members of different religious groups are able to mark the holidays while staying at home and maintaining the necessary physical distance.

One organization that has gone digital is Toronto's Beth Torah Congregation. Rabbi Yossi Sapirman has been livestreaming his Saturday morning services for weeks now. Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he decided to broadcast his seder online as well. He hosted the ritual in his home on Wednesday as part of his Passover celebration.

“I would not normally invite a camera into my home for my own seder, but it has to be done,” the rabbi told via telephone on Wednesday. “Putting myself out there means thousands of people will be comforted, and there’s no greater way to celebrate.”

Government and public health officials have firmly called for the cancellation of all religious gatherings ahead of both Passover and Easter, stressing that all holiday festivities should take place at home.

"This year, celebrations will feel very different as all of us find ways to meet with our families and friends virtually rather than in person, but it is absolutely crucial that we continue to follow these rules to protect our families, our friends, our neighbours and our country," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Tuesday.

But aside from having to stay home, this year’s Passover is unique in a different sense, said Sapirman. The holiday is meant to commemorate the story of Exodus and the Israelites’ journey from enslavement to freedom. But given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it becomes an opportunity to reflect on humanity’s collective journey during these difficult times.

“We’re celebrating the anticipation of our own personal freedom,” he said. “We’re not celebrating tomorrow, we’re not celebrating today – we’re celebrating the possibility that it’s going to get better.

“This is why I tell people this is the most meaningful Passover ever.”

While the world is united in the fact that everyone is experiencing this crisis together, many continue to remain confined to their homes in an effort to stop the virus from spreading. This is precisely why it’s important to connect with others, insists the rabbi. One of the best ways to do this is through technology.

“These are uncharted territories for all of us because there’s never been a greater need for social engagement and to talk to each other,” said Sapirman. “Technology is really saving us right now, it’s saving our social engagement.”

It’s for this reason that Sapirman and many others are turning to streaming platforms like YouTube to connect with members of their congregations. YouTube is the world’s largest video-sharing site, and one of the most popular platforms for livestreaming. In the past couple of weeks, the company said it has seen hundreds of channels created by various places of worship in an effort to connect with others.

The Vatican, for example, will be live treaming all of its Holy Week services from St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City through the website. This comes after its office announced Easter services would be held without the public for the first time.

“People come to YouTube for a lot of different reasons,” Andrew Peterson, YouTube Canada’s head of content partnerships, told on Thursday over the phone. “It’s not surprising to see faith and worship being some of those many things people come to the platform for in times like this.”

The website features a number of resources to help these religious organizations transmit their services online more efficiently. These tools include a digital playbook featuring instructions on how to create a YouTube channel, as well as how to optimize and set it up for livestreaming. Instructional videos on the YouTube Creators channel also offer information on content strategy and troubleshooting.

“We’ve created these resources to help people tackle the really daunting challenge of taking an offline event, online,” said Peterson. “As a platform, we just want to make sure that important cultural and faith organizations in Canada can continue providing valuable support and services to their constituents in this really difficult time.”

For Peterson, the best part of watching religious organizations livestream their services is seeing how they continue to transform the way they engage with members of their congregations. He points to the vlog-style videos posted by St. Mary’s Church in Brampton, Ont. as an example.

“I’m so inspired by the new ways people are finding to make that connection,” said Peterson. “I think the innovation that we’re seeing to keep this sense of togetherness is phenomenal.”

Sapirman has also been making his services more interactive by asking viewers to send in photos of themselves. For his Saturday service, or Shabbat, he places these pictures in the pews. But during his virtual seder on Wednesday, he used the photos to create a slideshow that played during the live tream.

“People were able to see themselves participating,” he said. “It’s creating the warmth and connectivity that a live service could never do.”

He explains that the seder was much different from any previous service he had led, whether in-person or virtually. Taking place in his home, it included conversations with other family members and featured a variety of music and videos.

“We did a full-on YouTube-based engagement,” he said. “It's not all driven by frontal rabbi conversation.”

According to Sapirman, feedback on his live treams has, for the most part, been positive. Despite this, he also admits that not everyone he’s come across has been so welcoming of this kind of technological engagement. His parents, for example, don’t usually watch his Saturday services due to their strict observance of Jewish law.

While everyone has the right to determine their own experience, Sapirman encourages others to at least give technology a try.

“I've had a lot of people say, ‘I'm really surprised at the warmth that can emanate from the technological engagement,” said the rabbi. “It might surprise you.”

In addition to the warmth, he said, many have pointed out an increased sense of comfort when tuning in from home. Members of his congregation have mentioned feeling safer about engaging in these services due to a lack of judgment or physical barriers. For this reason, and the fact that the pandemic remains ongoing, Sapirman believes it is likely that communication technology will continue to play a role in the way religious services are conducted for the foreseeable future.

“We have to be prepared for the possibility that YouTube and platforms like that...can make technology warm,” said Sapirman. “We're not trying to tell people this is the right way, all we're trying to say is this is another way, and especially in these times, it might be the best way.”

A list of livestreams taking place on YouTube from locations across the world in the coming days: