I am sitting in my office at the JCC attempting to write this blog, which is very daunting. The content itself is not the intimidating part, but how to convey my thoughts and feelings is the part that eludes me. I am not a “touchy-feely” person, and black and white is how I express myself best. Reflecting on my recent time as a volunteer at the Pittsburgh JCC makes me uncomfortable, not for what I experienced, but for the feelings that reemerge after reflecting on my time spent there.
Last April I was asked to participate in a program called JResponse. This program is the brainchild of Doron Krakow, the President & CEO of the JCC Association of North America. After the devastating floods in Houston, and the effects they had on the JCC there, JResponse was conceived as a way to address the immediate needs of a JCC in crisis. This program provides training and deployment for select JCC staff from across the country to assist in recovery efforts. I was honored to be selected as part of the first cohort of JCC staff for JResponse, and I received my training in Memphis back in May. As we were being trained and prepared then, imagining natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, none of us ever thought our first deployment would be after a shocking event like the October 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
On November 30, after a very long drive and multiple podcasts ringing in my ears, I arrived in Pittsburgh. I was told, along with other responders, that we were there to simply relieve the Pittsburgh JCC staff, who had been working non-stop for over a month. In the tight-knit Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, located only a few blocks away from the Tree of Life Synagogue, the JCC became the emergency response, triage and respite site in the wake of the horrific shooting. The staff had been going almost 24/7 since the incident. I was not due to start until the next morning, but me being me, I had to drive over to the JCC and get my bearings. As I drove down a beautiful tree-lined street, staring at the ornate houses passing by, I was about to make a turn and I slammed on my brakes. There, on the corner, was the Tree of Life Synagogue. One could not miss the police barricades still standing at attention or all the memorials placed with care. I had no idea that the shooting took place just blocks from the JCC. Every day I passed by that corner and every day I felt my heart break apart, piece by piece.
My time at the Pittsburgh JCC was poignant, as I spent my days helping in the Senior Program or walking the halls with Security personnel, I met so many people; JCC Members and Staff alike. Everyone was warm, kind, and always smiling. I was 342 miles away, but I felt like I was still in my home JCC in Scotch Plains. Throughout the day, many members and staff asked me who I was and why I was there (it wasn’t hard to pick the JResponders out of the crowd, as we were wearing our bright blue JResponse t-shirts). Without fail, after telling my story, every single individual thanked me profusely.
As I sit here in reflection, I realize it should have been me thanking them for showing me and all of us their courage and resolve. I should be thanking them for leading by example, and for demonstrating that an act of hate cannot and will not stop us as a community.
These are the lessons I learned on my first JResponse deployment:
- We all, as JCCs, are connected even though we are miles apart; we may look different and work differently, but we are all one community.
- We are a community that is welcoming and warm.
- We are a community that unites during times of struggle and times of celebration.
- We are a community that hurts together and heals together.
- We are a community that grows stronger together every day.
It says it in our JCC name and we should never take it for granted; we are a COMMUNITY.