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How do we go back?

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey works on re-entry plans for the community

There may be light at the end of the covid-19 tunnel, but the road awaiting us on the other side is potholed with uncertainty.

In fact, the only sure thing is that most aspects of life will not be the same as before. And some of those changes may last a long time, if not forever.

Under such circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to draw an accurate map for the people responsible for guiding Jewish institutions into the new reality.

Nevertheless, that mapmaking task was taken on by Gerard Dargan, the Jewish community security director for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“We all have to start thinking about how the world has changed, and come up with a plan to return to synagogues, day schools, social-service agencies, and community centers,” Mr. Dargan said. “I think things will start reopening at the end of May.”

And when that happens, he added, “Nothing will be the same — the way we go to work or school, the way we socialize — for the near future, and maybe until there’s a vaccine or a proven medical treatment. We are here to give guidelines for the community, because it’s going to be new and we need to be organized and safe

“You can’t just walk back in and flip the switch.”

Gerald Dargan

Mr. Dargan, who was hired in March 2019, is the liaison between JFNNJ and federal, state, and local law enforcement and private security professionals. He develops and communicates plans to meet security needs for beneficiary institutions and programs. About 180 are listed on the federation’s website, including some 85 synagogues and more than 50 schools and preschools.

Mr. Dargan devised the reentry plan in conjunction with Robert Wilson the chief security officer at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest, and Amy Keller, the director of security initiatives for the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. They drew on information issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, New Jersey’s Department of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security.

JFNNJ sent the two-pager out to executive directors of beneficiary organizations at the end of last week. The federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, called it “a blueprint for any institution that wants to open in the right way so that people will feel comfortable going back to them.”

The document contains proposals for communication and planning; physical space accommodations to prevent the transmission of the virus through talking, coughing, or sneezing; cleaning protocols; security protocols; and other considerations, such as providing support for staff during the adjustment period.

In the communication and planning category, suggestions include surveying users of the building to ascertain expectations, concerns, and needs before implementing a plan; remaining in contact throughout the implementation process; phasing or staggering reentry to help control social distancing; establishing policies on personal protective equipment and maximum number of people permitted in each space; and conveying an estimated schedule showing about how long such policies are likely to remain in place.

In terms of the physical space, the main goal is spacing desks appropriately and ensuring that nobody shares office or school equipment, including keyboards. Using painters’ tape to mark six-foot increments and movement flow directions on the floor can make it easier for people who must work or learn onsite to maintain social distance.

For synagogues, the document recommends modifications for ritual touch points such as mezuzahs, Torah scrolls, and Torah pointers to reduce potential exposure.

The cleaning protocols call for sanitizers to be placed throughout the building in touch-free dispensers, installing touch-free garbage and recycling receptacles, and ensuring adequate restocking of hygiene items, such as soap in the bathrooms.

Mr. Dargan said that the JFNNJ hopes to be able to offer personal protective equipment and cleaning products through its group buying program to keep costs lower.

The security protocols advise steps such as alerting law-enforcement personnel when reentry is planned, testing alarm and camera systems, and deactivating the access of former employees.

Security concerns are related less to covid-19 itself than to the disease of anti-Semitism, which has been spiking worldwide during the pandemic. One local incident occurred on April 20, when a man from Queens threatened a Jewish customer at a Fort Lee Dunkin’ Donuts, telling him that Jews are responsible for covid-19.

Mr. Shames said that the federation is “working with all synagogues, agencies, and community institutions to ensure the focus on reopening is on safety, health, and security. 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.”

He said that this crisis “exceeds anything we’ve had previously, including Hurricane Sandy and the terrorist shooting in Jersey City. Details like how ventilation systems can spread bacteria is a consideration we didn’t have to deal with after incidents like the synagogue fire-bombings several years ago.”

Noting that the federation have never had to formulate reentry guidelines until now, Mr. Shames said that Mr. Dargan and his colleagues “recognized that when we are ready to climb out of this crisis, we must climb out the right way, so we come out of it stronger than before. Sharing our resources and knowhow in this situation goes to the core of what federation is.”

JFNNJ itself needs to deal with reopening its physical office and ramping up fundraising efforts to provide adequate support to constituent organizations, he added. “We’ve done incredible work remotely under challenging circumstances, but we still have to raise the dollars to meet community needs, so the quicker we can get back the better.

“We need to feed people, to make sure vulnerable populations have their needs addressed, and to make sure Jewish engagement and continuity is not lost.”

In his cover letter, Mr. Dargan told recipients that the federation “is here to help you and support you as you build a plan for reentry.

“I’m making myself available for any questions on how to individualize the plan for specific needs and building configurations,” he said. “There are a lot of issues we never had to think about that we have to think about now. We may find that there are things we have missed or will have to add or change.”

“It is important that we plan well and come out strong,” Mr. Shames said. “Hopefully, these guidelines will protect us against a resurgence of infections in our communities.”

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