July 25, 2024
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Looking Toward Reopening

With New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s recent decision to extend the state of emergency indefinitely, and the public health emergency until early June, it may be hard to imagine what Jewish institutions will look like when they are finally allowed to reopen.

To that end, a few Jewish communal groups have taken a thoughtful look ahead and offered principles for reopening shuls, schools and community organizations.

On Sunday, May 3, an alliance of three Jewish federations in the state—the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey (covering Middlesex and Monmouth counties), the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest (covering Essex, Union, Sussex, Morris and parts of Somerset counties), and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (covering Bergen, Hudson and parts of Passaic counties)—issued a two-page document titled, “Building A Re-Entry Plan for Your Organization.” They disseminated the document to all their affiliated agencies.

The security officers of each Jewish federation worked together to draft the document, which drew on guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the New Jersey Department of Health and the Department of Homeland Security. The document is divided into five sections, including Communication and Planning, Physical Space Accommodations, Cleaning Protocols, Security Protocols and Other Considerations.

The federation leaders see efforts to draft and share this document as a natural outgrowth of their organizations’ missions.

“(The) federation is committed to helping the mainstream Jewish community reopen facilities only when authorities have deemed it safe and appropriate,” said Jason Shames, CEO of Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “We created this comprehensive document and distributed it to all institutions, providing the tools and considerations necessary to make a measured and intentional plan to reopen their physical space. Our priority is not to just go back into our buildings; our priority is to keep our staff and constituents safe. That will always be first and foremost in our decision-making.”

Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, said, “Our federation is convening a series of dialogues and discussions with lay and professional leaders, rabbis and community members to review procedures and ideas for the next stages. These include conversations about the future of our agencies, our synagogues, our federation itself and the interlocking nature of community. Now is the time for us to evaluate and consider our assumptions, thinking through what we may need to stop, what we need to increase and more. I invite community members to reach out to the federation with their input.”

“We and our partner Jewish federations saw an unmet need—among Jewish organizations planning their eventual return to on-site operations—for workable applications of public health guidelines within their particular settings,” said Susan Antman, executive director of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “We set out to develop conversation starters for these organizations to use in their planning, to customize core principles in determining what is right for their own setting, people and practices. This was done in the same spirit and for the same reasons Jewish federation brings safety and security preparedness training, resources and support to all Jewish organizations and individuals. We are the organization that keeps an eye on, marshals resources for and convenes partners to address threats affecting the Jewish people.”

In similar fashion, on Friday, May 8, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a four-page document, “Guidance to Shuls and Communities on Reopening,” and Agudath Israel of America released a five-page document, “Safely Reopening Our Kehillos—A Roadmap for Rabbonim & Community Leaders.”

The OU/RCA and Agudath Israel documents cover some of the same territory as the Jewish federation document, and also include specific and practical advice on reestablishing communal prayer services.

The OU/RCA and Agudath Israel appear to agree on many of the same principles, which include:

• A commitment to full and unequivocal cooperation with local government.

“No activity may begin until local government and rabbinic authorities deem this activity safe and allowable,” states the Agudath Israel roadmap.

“Shuls and communities must strictly follow the guidelines provided by local and national authorities, including the CDC and local health departments,” states the OU/RCA guidance.

• Strong suggestions, in some instances, to act more strictly than local government mandates.

The OU/RCA document states that “we are not yet ready to open,” and suggests that shuls and schools wait until “at least two weeks after local governments have allowed public gatherings of more than 10 persons, and have not seen upticks in disease.”

The Agudath Israel document states, “If a local government states that gatherings of 25 are now allowed without masks if social distancing is observed, We would still restrict our davening to a minyan of 12 to 14 and only while observing the safety protocols.”

• An emphatic call for communal unity.

The Agudath Israel document states, “If different shuls or segments of a community adhere to different standards, it will be impossible to know what is working or not working for the community as a whole.”

The OU/RCA document asserts that “we must work hard to maintain communal discipline. This will only be accomplished if communal leadership continues to speak with one voice.”

• When shul minyanim resume, they will need to look very different.

Both documents recommend small minyanim, with participants wearing masks and seated at a social distance from each other. The OU/RCA document instructs, “Shuls should make davening as short as appropriate, curtailing singing and speeches, and perhaps donning tallis and tefillin and saying the first parts of davening at home and gathering in shul before Barchu.”

The Agudath Israel document recommends that “children under bar mitzvah should not attend,” and there should be “no congregating or kiddushim before or after minyan.” Both documents encourage shuls to recommend that congregants bring their own siddurim and use the restroom at home before coming to shul.

• Torah reading should also be very different.

The Agudath Israel document suggests that in the initial stages of reopening, the ba’al koreh should also take out the Torah, bring it directly to the shulchan and take all the aliyot. He should also perform hagbah and gelilah, with help from a designated individual if needed. The OU/RCA makes similar recommendations.

• An explicit call to exclude certain members from congregational prayer.

By Harry Glazer

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