Jeanne Henzel Swartz in her workshop. (MAURICE RAMIREZ)
Jeanne Henzel Swartz in her workshop. (MAURICE RAMIREZ)

Idea born at Oakland temple: Making plastic masks for medical workers

Angela Engel was worried about one of her oldest friends, a Bay Area doctor on the front lines of fighting Covid-19. As the number of cases rose, she heard him tell horror stories about the lack of protective equipment for health care workers, and she was appalled.

“I just couldn’t let him get sick,” she said. “I just couldn’t.”

So when she heard that a fellow member of her Oakland synagogue  — an upholsterer  — wanted to help, an idea was born.

Now, Engel and Jeanne Henzel Swartz of Temple Beth Abraham are spearheading an effort to make shield masks and get them to doctors and health providers who are unprotected. Shield masks are disposable masks made of clear plastic that protect the whole face; Swartz is crafting them at her workshop in Alameda.

Swartz has created a prototype and the two have set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the materials. A former costume artist and currently the owner of Joona Fabriculture, Swartz is not taking any money for the project, although she is paying an assistant.

In order to create the masks, they’ve been working with doctors, including Engel’s childhood friend, plus a hospital anesthesiologist and a medical director of emergency medicine at a major Bay Area hospital.

The doctors have to remain discreet about their involvement, however, as the masks that Swartz is making aren’t licensed. But Engel said her doctor friends are desperate for equipment, no matter how ad hoc, and she’s determined to give it to them, even if it means circumventing the red tape.

“We can’t just drop these off at a hospital,” Engel said. “The reality is, they have to go into the hands of doctors.”

Even though the doctors are giving Swartz feedback on what they need, making the one-off masks hasn’t been easy: There are numerous elements to perfect in creating a protective mask, from tweaking the fit to the need for an anti-fog coating on the plastic.

“I could bore you for days on the technical details,” Swartz said.

And sourcing is tricky, as right now supplies of everything are difficult to obtain, from plastic to foam and beyond.

“There’s also a critical shortage of elastic in the U.S. right now,” she said. “Of all kinds.”

Swartz completed a trial production run of 500 masks on Wednesday, and once she gets all the materials, she can be up and running. Supplies to make around 1,500 masks are on the way, she said, and they hope to acquire enough additional materials to make 10,000 masks in total.

“We can do about 2,000 a day,” she said.

From then on, it will just be a question of money. Swartz and Engel and their families put up the money to start the project, but the fundraising will be crucial to keeping the process going. As of Friday, they had received $16,600, including one $2,500 donation from a client that made Swartz blink.

“Oh, this is real,” she thought. “We’re doing this.”

On top of that, in the midst of the prototyping, fundraising and designing, Swartz’s family had something else on their mind.

“We were dealing with our daughter [who was] scheduled to be bat mitzvah on the 28th of March!” she said.

That was canceled, of course.

“We ended up having a Zoom minyan … in our living room and she read her Torah portion and gave her drash digitally,” Swartz said.

Now her daughter is helping Swartz with the masks and Engel is putting the word out about the GoFundMe.

With the help of their respective communities — the synagogue, a moms’ network and their circles in the East Bay — they hope momentum for the project will grow.

“All of the pieces are falling into place in a quite lovely way,” Swartz said. “And some wonderful relationships are being forged.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.