With New Jersey’s Health Emergency extended another 30 days on Wednesday as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the state and much of the nation, residents and health-care workers are preparing for continued restrictions—and looking to take the necessary precautions—as they move in a limited capacity through their daily lives.

Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency as well as a public-health emergency back in early March; it was extended in early April and now in May. Since the crisis began, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and their communities have been actively organizing to get life-saving supplies to the frontlines and to residents scrambling amid shortages to meet guidelines that make wearing them a necessity for grocery shopping and other routine tasks.

To help meet that need, Chabad centers throughout the state heightened their efforts this week as part of a campaign to acquire and distribute more than 150,000 masks to hospitals and individuals around the Garden State.

Traffic was at a standstill in Bayonne, N.J., on Monday as Chabad of Hoboken & Jersey City, and Chabad of Bayonne distributed face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray to thousands of individuals and families. An anonymous donor made it possible to give out more than $100,000 worth of protective gear to the community—and so they did, handing out 60,000 masks, 120,000 gloves, 1,200 hand sanitizers and 1,200 disinfectant sprays. The event was held at a local park, coordinated in conjunction with the local government and safety offices.

People came from far and wide, waiting for hours to pick up the necessities, arriving as early as 7 a.m. for the 11 a.m. distribution. As with Chabad Houses in areas impacted by coronavirus around the country, the emissaries have sprung into action to help make it possible for members of the broader community to stay connected and to get what they need to stay safe during the pandemic.

Between the ongoing health-care needs as COVID-19 continues to spread across New Jersey (and neighboring states New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania), and recent conversations about how to reopen the economy, the need for gear across the board continues to grow. Rabbi Avi Richler, director at Chabad of Gloucester, N.J., received an offer of 50,000 KN95 surgical masks, which he helped distribute this week to hospitals from Salem County to Bergen County. Richler connected with the network of rabbis operating the 61 Chabad centers across the state, who in turn reached out with assemblymen and hospital administrators to get the masks to frontline workers.

“Coordinating from our office in Gloucester, all the Chabad centers in New Jersey came together to aid in the effort against this pandemic and protect our frontline medical staff. We all know victims of the virus; we all know the brave health-care workers fighting it,” said Richler. “As soon as we had the opportunity, we knew we wanted to be part of the solution and help in any way we can.”

The mask distribution comes as part of broader Chabad efforts to keep people not only safe, but also connected, during these turbulent times. In Short Hills, for example, Rabbi Mendel Solomon, director and spiritual leader at Chabad at Short Hills, has been personally delivering masks to doctors so they don’t have to use the same ones for multiple uses.

Two families involved with the Chabad center halted production at their large manufacturing plants, shifting gears to make masks and gowns instead, said Rabbi Mendel Solomon, executive director at Chabad at Short Hills. Another family is focused on locating and purchasing masks for volunteers, and having them distributed as gifts via Chabad to local hospitals, police and fire departments.

Volunteers from a local sorority pitched in at Chabad of Hackensack, N.J.
Volunteers from a local sorority pitched in at Chabad of Hackensack, N.J.

Volunteers Step Up in Bayonne

In Bayonne, volunteers stepped up to help make equipment distribution efforts safe, welcoming and efficient. “It was all hands on deck; it was, ‘Let’s help everyone out here,’ ” said Bayonne resident Miri Zafir, who texted to find out how she could get involved after learning about the distribution. She headed to the city park on Monday morning to find cars lined up waiting. Eventually, she made it through the gridlock and spent the morning handing out gear to people arriving in vehicles and on foot. By 12:15 p.m., the Office of Emergency Management announced that the supplies had been given out.

The event drew people from across Bayonne’s diverse communities, as well as people from farther away. Many were appreciative, she said, adding that one person even came ready with a “thank you” card.

Zafir said she wanted to exhibit Jewish pride and let people know that others care. Especially given the recent uptick in anti-Semitism, she said, she wanted to take the opportunity to combat negative messaging and do something positive to let people know, “I may not know you directly, but we all care about each other.”

Mayor James Davis also rolled up his sleeves for Monday’s event, which was set up with his office. Nearly 3,000 people had posted on Facebook that they were planning to attend. Police helped monitor traffic and the Department of Public works helped with the setup, cleanup and beyond.

“It was so positive to be able to give people what they needed, and it’s hard to find. People were so appreciative,” said Melissa Mathew, business administrator for the City of Bayonne, which helped facilitate the distribution. “It really brought everybody together.”

Rabbi Moshe Schapiro hands out bags with supplies and a note encouraging recipients to do a good deed.
Rabbi Moshe Schapiro hands out bags with supplies and a note encouraging recipients to do a good deed.

Recipients got a bag with supplies and a note encouraging them to do a good deed. “It’s very heartwarming for so many people to receive this now that the governor has opened state parks, and everyone is required to wear a face mask. A lot of people don’t have the ability to get them,” said Rabbi Moshe Schapiro, co-director of the Chabad of Hoboken & Jersey City.

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—teaches that it’s important to be there for fellow Jews and fellow human beings, said Schapiro. And this was a good way to get these necessities in people’s hands, thanks to the donor, who wishes to remain anonymous..

“Obviously, most of our work is at our Chabad, with our synagogue, our classes, our school, but when a crisis hits like coronavirus, it affects every single person the same. So as citizens of the world, our job is to look out for fellow citizens,” he said. “Any way we can relieve the pressure so people can get back to life, this is the highest form of doing our [mission].”

Rabbi Mendy Kaminker distributes a mask at Chabad of Hackensack’s Drive-Through.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker distributes a mask at Chabad of Hackensack’s Drive-Through.

Drive-Through Distribution in Hackensack

In Bergen County, volunteers working with Chabad of Hackensack, co-directed by Rabbi Mendy and Shterna Kaminker, gave out 1,600 masks on Sunday at the Free Mask Drive-Thru.

The distribution took place at a drive-by event that drew 320 people, held in accordance with social-distancing rules. Deputy Mayor David Sims was on hand, as were volunteers from a local sorority chapter.

Those who attended received masks and a letter reminding them to invest in their spiritual and emotional well-being, in addition to following all city, state and national orders involving coronavirus protection.

“A really diverse group of people came, some came from other places,” said Kaminker. In addition to the mask distributions, Chabad is also doing individual outreach, supporting families with loved ones in the hospital, he said.

The event was slated to run from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., but by around 2 p.m. they were out of masks, he said, adding that cars started lining up well before the event. “One person told me, ‘I have only one mask left. I’m so happy you guys are doing this,’ ” he recounted.

“I think people felt cared for, and people were happy that the service is being offered,” said Kaminker, adding that volunteers were wearing masks with the words, “Think good, it will be good.” It’s part of a campaign Chabad of Hackensack is starting to send a powerful and positive message; the saying that comes via the third Chabad Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch—which is especially meaningful in these times, he said.

“People are wearing masks. It’s hiding their smiles, so we are using the masks to send a positive message, a message of faith—people were very excited about that as well,” he said.

Debbie Moallem, who lives in Bayonne, was running errands with her husband Yaacov when she noticed traffic was much heavier than usual – because of the event. “I was happy to see that it was a big success,” said Moallem, who had intended to make the event her next stop, but in the end wound up heading home instead of fighting traffic. “I thought it was wonderful, and it’s also nice to have the masks.”

Volunteers in Bayonne distributed masks and other protective gear.
Volunteers in Bayonne distributed masks and other protective gear.