Planning is key

It’s time to bring back in-person gatherings: Here’s how

In Short

As one of the first major Jewish organizations to hold a large in-person conference since COVID upended our lives two years ago, we have learned a lot about how to return safely to in-person gatherings at a time when the pandemic has abated, but not disappeared — a situation that may continue for a long time.

“It is so great to be together in person again!”

Last month, at the Jewish Funders Network conference in Palm Beach, Fla., I heard variations of this statement over and over again. After two years of COVID, more than 500 members of our philanthropic community were finally able to meet up in person for a mix of structured programming and informal networking. It was magical! 

As one of the first major Jewish organizations to hold a large in-person conference since COVID upended our lives two years ago, we have learned a lot about how to return safely to in-person gatherings at a time when the pandemic has abated, but not disappeared — a situation that may continue for a long time. In-person gatherings require more planning now than they did in pre-COVID times, but at JFN, we strongly believe that it is worth the extra effort. While we will continue to supplement our in-person gatherings with online ones, we are an organization focused on building networks and relationships, which need human, in-person connections in order to grow and thrive. Because this is a new world that presents new challenges, we thought that sharing our experience may be of help for the broader community as more of us seek to regain the magic of “in person.”

Here are some lessons learned: 

Accept (and Empathize with) Different Viewpoints. 

The pandemic touches on ideology and values, and it’s linked to our most primal fears. So, people will have different views about the necessary precautions. While there’s no way of satisfying everybody, we found that being open and transparent about our decision-making process helped. Even when people disagreed with some of our choices, they were reassured that our decisions weren’t rushed or cavalier. Involving your board and your conference and organizational lay people is critical. Ultimately, you need to level up with folks and be clear that attending a mass event implies taking an informed risk that one can minimize but never eliminate. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Require Proof of Vaccination (and Booster).

Early on, we decided that the only way to ensure participants’ safety at an indoor conference was to require proof of vaccination, including a booster. We made this clear in all communications from the outset and exempted individuals unable to get boosters for medical reasons (or because they’d recently had COVID). The vast majority of participants complied with our request to upload proof to a HIPAA-compliant portal before the conference, and everyone showed proof before they were allowed to check in. We found that contracting with a health vendor helps expedite the process, and we recommend you ensure that the vendor has adequate staff to deal with the peak registration times. While COVID vaccine requirements have sparked controversy in some sectors in the past year, the Jewish community is overwhelmingly pro-vaccine, and we encountered few objections to our policy. 

Do Your Homework Ahead of Time.

In preparing for the conference and determining our COVID policies, we kept up to date on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to ensure we were complying with them. We also researched the protocols in place as of March 1 in major cities across the United States and in Israel, particularly for major venues and other gatherings.

A Few People May Get Mild Cases of COVID (or Other Contagious Illnesses).

Remember before COVID how you frequently returned from a conference or other trip with a cold? When you bring people together from all over the world, they are going to share germs. Fortunately, when all those people are vaccinated and boosted, chances are that COVID cases will be rare and mild. After the conference, we asked participants to notify us if they tested positive either during or in the three days after the conference. About 12 people (out of more than 600 – including staff and guests) responded that they’d had positive tests, and all experienced relatively mild symptoms. While it is possible that some people contracted COVID and didn’t tell us, we doubt that a significant number did. Obviously, nobody likes to be one of the “unlucky few,” but we can never eliminate ALL risk, and we shouldn’t allow fear to prevent us from enjoying in-person connections when done thoughtfully. 

Testing Won’t Help Much, Except for Individuals Who Have Symptoms or Known COVID Exposure.

Given COVID’s incubation periods and the testing technology available, testing is just not a reliable way to prevent COVID from spreading at a gathering. Of the participants at our conference who reported getting COVID, several were testing daily and getting negative results even when they were likely contagious. In addition, several participants who got COVID traveled from Israel and had negative PCR test results (required in order to leave the country) before arriving at the conference. While we did not require testing before the conference, we made tests available upon request for participants who reported COVID symptoms or believed they had been exposed. Testing may provide attendees with some psychological reassurance, but that should be carefully weighed against the logistical challenges it poses. 

Encourage, But Don’t Require, Masks.

Our members are diverse, and have varying views about the necessity of masking among fully vaccinated people. Some have underlying health conditions that require them to be more cautious. As a result, we made KN95 masks available and encouraged people to make their own decisions about whether or not to mask. Some people wore masks all the time, others only when they were inside large plenary programs, and some never wore them. In retrospect, we wish we had done more to encourage mask use, not so much for safety, but to ensure that those who wished to wear masks wouldn’t feel shy about doing so. One of our learning points is that having conference staff wear masks may “give permission” to others to do so as well without feeling self-conscious. 

Location, Location, Location

Be mindful of the local and state regulation where you hold your conference, but be aware that these can change quickly. Some states may make it impossible for you to demand, for example, that staff and vendors are masked and fully vaccinated. 

Be Transparent and Keep the Lines of Communication Open. 

We announced our COVID policies early and often, and we also welcomed responses. In post-conference emails, we announced all the COVID cases reported to us. It’s critical to recognize that our community has a diversity of views and concerns about safety precautions and to signal that, while we have firm policies, we are open to hearing everyone’s views. Also, keep an open mind. Decisions can change if new or better information becomes available. For example, in our initial conversations we considered requiring testing, but we changed our minds when presented with overwhelming evidence of its uselessness. Being firm doesn’t mean being obtuse.  

Don’t Try to Mix In-person and Online.

Our conference was fully in-person, with no opportunities for Zooming in. This disappointed some of our members, but we felt like hybrid events provide a less-than-optimal experience for the in-person participants and the online ones, while placing excessive burdens on speakers and presenters trying to include both. During the pandemic, we learned how to hold successful online programs and events, and we’ll continue to offer many of these, particularly to allow for frequent get-togethers and to meet the needs of members who are unable to travel. Both in-person and Zoom have their pros and cons, and we believe each works best when you don’t try to mix them.

Be Ready to Pivot

Keep your planning as flexible as possible. The Omicron wave came out of nowhere very fast, and it upended many plans. It can happen again, and you can’t be caught off guard. After needing to cancel several conferences and events in the last two years, we know how taxing and anxiety-inducing this is, but there’s no way around it. 

After two years of COVID, our lives will never return to exactly the way things were before. We’ve learned a great deal about how Zoom can bring people together, but we’ve also learned that nothing matches the excitement of real-life gatherings, where everyone is in the same room, eating the same food, hearing the same music. 

In a few weeks we’re looking forward to another in-person gathering: Approximately 50 of our West Coast members will come together in Los Angeles, for a special program focused on using storytelling as a means for making change. We at JFN are happy to answer questions from other organizations considering taking the plunge and returning to in-person.

In the coming months, we can’t wait to experience even more events like this, whether they are hosted by JFN or other Jewish organizations. 

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is executive vice president of Jewish Funders Network.