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Reopening Our Institutions

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(To Reconstructionist communities outside the United States: While this statement is oriented toward people in the United States, we believe it contains principles that are universal to people everywhere. We offer it to you for your consideration while you consider the particular circumstances and guidelines within your countries.)

The American Jewish community, like all faith communities, is suffering and in pain at this moment of pandemic and illness – and has risen to the challenges we face with grace, fortitude, heroism and beauty.

We grieve all the lives lost and pray that their memories become blessings for all of us and we offer comfort and condolence to all who mourn.

We are grateful to the medical personnel, first responders, essential workers and myriad helpers who have put their lives at risk to help serve in our communities – for them we continue to offer our prayers that they be kept from all harm and affliction.

Despite the tremendous toll this is taking on our communities – in loss of life, in sickness, in disruption of families and communities and in the financial health of our organizations and their members, we in the Jewish community have much of which to be proud and even more for which we can be grateful.

Reaction to the novel coronavirus across the American Jewish community was swift and comprehensive. Acting on our deeply held values of pikuach nefesh (saving lives); caring for the elderly, infirm and at-risk; and focusing on community wellness over individual comfort, most Jewish institutions responded with abundant caution to institute social distancing and working from home, and to completely redesign how we worship, learn, support one another, and work for the needs of our community (tzorchei tzibur) in this very stressful time.

Within days, most communities across the country shut down in-person services and moved their worship, educational programs and life-cycle events online. New forums and platforms have been utilized and invented to find ways to gather and sustain one another. The creativity that our community leaders, rabbis, cantors and educators are demonstrating has been astounding and awesome to behold.

As we continue the work of keeping each other safe and begin to contemplate a return to communal activity, we again want to be sure that our actions are dictated by our values and are in concert with the best scientific and medical advice available. To that end, Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association put forth these guidelines to help local communities, congregations, schools, camps, community institutions and others make the decisions necessary to keep individuals and our communities safe.

We offer these following frameworks for decision making:

  • We reject the false dichotomy between saving lives and reviving the economy: Medical science must be used as the basis upon which we make decisions about how and when to open our facilities and return to in-person programming. Opening too soon may increase the likelihood of new outbreaks and force vulnerable individuals into the position of having to put themselves at risk or forego community participation altogether, further isolating them. We hold health and safety above all other concerns as a guiding principle.
  • Decisions must be local and contextual, based on local circumstances such as infection rates, testing availability, health care capacity, population make-up, availability of PPE, etc. We urge all institutional leaders to be in touch with local as well as national health and safety experts and to follow the guidance of medical experts in your area.
  • Expectations must be realistic. We should anticipate that our lives and the lives of our communities will be shaped by COVID-19 for at least a year, possibly longer.  The openings of our synagogues, JCCs, camps, schools, institutions and organizations will happen in stages and may also be sporadic and inconsistent. We should expect gatherings of differently sized groupings to be permitted at different times and should not be surprised if some activities that are permitted are shut down again in response to new outbreaks or other relevant conditions.
  • Decisions about openings and gatherings of different sizes must be made according to medical and preparedness markers established by the CDC, state and local health authorities.
  • Leaders should prepare their communities now about reimagining our high holiday experiences, our life cycle observances and our educational programs to not look “normal” for the remainder of 2020 and possibly further.

 Some questions to consider for individual institutions:

  • Has your insurance company weighed in on benchmarks for reopening, and for operating any programs? Your movement institutions? How will these influence your decision?
  • Will you maintain an online streaming option once you are back together worshiping in physical space? How will that need to adjust when there is also in-person worship happening?
  • How many people can your prayer space hold if you are praying in family groups sitting 6 feet apart?
  • How will you discourage receiving lines, physical touching or intimacy and safe distancing before or after services (during oneg or kiddush)?
  • During earlier phases of relaunch, how will you cap attendance at events so there is room for members of the community to join you and so you don’t go over guidelines?
  • How can you encourage small group gatherings or or havurot in the earlier phases of relaunching – possibly even before we move from back from social distancing? How might you continue these when in-person services resume?
  • How will you ensure sanitation and disinfection in regards to communal spaces?
    • Ritual items such as kippot and tallitot, prayerbooks, etc.
    • Areas where small groups gather during the week
    • Nurseries and/or playgrounds
    • Pews or chairs following worship
    • Doorknobs, bathrooms, other areas that people touch when in your building
  • How will you update your building use agreements to reflect the new realities of COVID-19?
  • If someone contracts COVID-19, how will you communicate with your congregation as a whole and with individual members who may have come into contact with that individual while maintaining privacy and pastoral care?
  • If someone who has been in your building contracts COVID-19, how will you do a more intensive cleaning prior to its next use?
  • How will you communicate your safety plan and best practices to the congregation?

The Jewish community has faced many paradigm-shifting events in our long history. From the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem to the dispersions and expulsions of the Middle Ages up until the horrors of more recent centuries, Jews have survived with resilience, creativity and fortitude to forge new ways of being and new ways of connecting again, again and again. The same will be true under this current threat and we will come to a time, may it be speedily and in our day, where once again the streets will be filled with gladness, the voices of children will sing and we shall not know fear any longer. Let us all do everything we can to help us reach that day.

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Take 5-10 minutes to help shape the organization’s future.

We have embarked on a strategic planning process to envision the near-term future of the organization. To inform that process, we want to understand our constituents’ needs in these tumultuous times, so we’re reaching out to you.

If you have any questions, you can contact our strategic partners and survey administrators, Third Plateau, by reaching out to Sarah Edwards at sarah@thirdplateau.com.