Jewish Federation convenes community leaders to share knowledge, discuss “best practices” and plan for next steps.

Last Friday, March 13th, about 150 local Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders tuned in online for a virtual discussion about our community’s pandemic preparedness.

“Being in this together is a lot easier than being in it alone,” said Jewish Federation Chief Operating Officer Steven Rosenberg, kicking off the meeting. “We’re here for each other, even if it means remotely.”

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 was a topic that just weeks earlier had felt rather far away, but had suddenly roared into view by spreading across the U.S., and all at once, Greater Philadelphia synagogues, Jewish organizations and institutions began working on safety plans. To help streamline those efforts and encourage collaboration, our Jewish Federation will convened the first of what will be a weekly meeting, via Zoom, for our partners to share practices and provide updates.

Our first meeting featured five panelists, each of whom discussed preparedness from the standpoints of their different demographics:

Jewish Day Schools Turn to Online Learning

Rabbi Gil Perl of Kohelet Yeshiva spoke of day schools’ decision to preemptively close their doors and move to online learning: “I was fortunate to be on a listserv with New York heads of schools, and that kept us ahead of the game.” He and other local day school heads had been discussing the matter via WhatsApp and Slack, “and the primary concern switched at a certain point to not overloading hospitals, not contributing to a spike in cases.”

The school will continue using online platforms they already rely upon. Kindergarten through 5th grade uses GoogleSuite; middle school uses Altitude Learning. High school will use Zoom and PowerSchool.

  • Device gemach (free loan society). With the heavy emphasis on technology, it’s important that all families have all the devices they need to support all their school-aged kids. The idea has been floated of a device gemach at Caskey Torah Academy, wherein community members can lend out any extra devices for the duration of the disruption. More info to come.
  • Paid leave policy change. “So faculty who needed to stay home could stay home,” said Rabbi Perl. “We did feel very strongly that as a Jewish day school not only do we have an obligation to our children but also to our faculty that have their children at home.”
  • Concern over kids’ online lives. Something for educators to consider: As we move to distance learning, even more of their interactions will go online. How to remain plugged into our kids’ lives during this time?

Campus Hillels Focus on Four Principles

Rabbi Isabel de Koninck of Drexel Hillel reported that while the Hillel building had closed for programming and the university was moving to online coursework, Hillel’s priorities were focused on the “four principles”:

  • Modeling best practices for all students
  • Making sure students are well-supported during the disruption
  • Helping students maintain Jewish lives and mark Jewish time during this crisis
  • Helping students mitigate social isolation during this time.

To that end, Shabbat before spring break had shifted to pick-up meals enjoyed in gatherings of ten people or fewer in students’ apartments. Future plans revolved around digital platforms both for providing connection and Jewish content.

Synagogues Concerned With Mental, Emotional and Economic Effects

Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel told us how, just as an unofficial network of day school heads existed and helped with early decision-making, so too did the Lower Merion clergy use their listserv; the Board of Rabbis and executive directors also used existing networks to talk, plan, and get ahead of the curve.

  • Adath Israel closed its doors to public services. They already livestream their daily minyan and Shabbat services (presetting the timer before Shabbat) and will continue doing so, although for health reasons they will maintain an in-person minyan only on Shabbat, doing an adaptive liturgy during the week. Their online minyan numbers have swelled in recent days: “What we’re seeing is a hunger to connect.”
  • Next steps: Conversations are beginning to turn from preparedness to ways people can help others, as well as what Rabbi Yanoff calls the pandemic’s secondary effects: “the mental, emotional and economic effects. And what it means to be a community in a time of social distancing.”

Older Adult Facilities Fear Spike in Needs

Andre Krug of KleinLife, where patrons are predominantly older adults (the highest risk group for COVID-19), told us about the decisive action the board had taken to stop all programming for seniors. He also spoke of the significant challenges they now face, which he called “a communal challenge”:

  • Reducing isolation. KleinLife seniors live at home and may be fearful of venturing out during this time, especially to crowded grocery stores. KleinLife staffers are calling all older adults (more than 1,000 of them) with regular check-ins.
  • Meal prep and delivery. On an average week, KleinLife delivers about 1500 meals on wheels. With the cancellation of KleinLife’s daily communal lunch those orders have “skyrocketed” — and at the same time, many of the 40 volunteer groups who prepare meals for KleinLife have cancelled due to their own virus risk. “We are all hands on deck. As we speak, my staff is cooking and packaging meals,” said Andre. For safety reasons volunteers can no longer assist with cooking; however, volunteers are needed to deliver food, and can contact saistrop@kleinlife.org.

Food Pantries Remain Open

Brian Gralnick, Jewish Federation’s Director of Social Responsibility, spoke about the Mitzvah Food Program, whose clients also are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

  • All five Mitzvah Food pantry locations remain open. Normally clients come inside and select their choice of food from a touch screen. To prevent people from gathering, they are now handed a pre-packaged bag outside the pantry. A policy that is subject to change with changing mandates.
  • Food banks have a healthy inventory, and suppliers aren’t seeing chain interruption. A larger concern than food shortages is the capacity to serve the larger number of clients who may start appearing, such as those who depended on KleinLife lunch.
  • Day schools have been contacted to find out if families need supplemental food due to the loss of school meals.

Resources for Working Remotely

Robb Quattro, IT Director of the Jewish Federation had tech tips for organizations working remotely, including:

  • Use cloud-based software like Google Suite, which lends itself to collaborative work with features like gmail, googledocs, googlechat and the “softphone” googlevoice. Office 365 has similar features.
  • Slack is an excellent app for communicating with employees.
  • Keep the phones ringing by forwarding employees’ desk phones to their cell phones. For older phone systems that aren’t capable of forwarding, contact your phone provider, who can forward it for you.
  • Cybersecurity. There’s been an uptick in “phishing” emails specifically targeting the Jewish community, including spoofed emails that appear to be from familiar sources. Think before you click.
  • Review your backups to make sure all your organization’s work is archived.

Additional COVID-19 Resources

Our first 90-minute weekly COVID-19 webinar for leadership yielded a wealth of information, raised excellent questions and importantly, was a powerful reminder that we’re stronger when we work together. For more COVID-19 resources from the Jewish Federation click here. If you are a Jewish communal professional who would like to join us on these calls, please email COVID19@jewishphilly.org with subject line Join Webinar.