Szereszewski: Lending a helping hand in Pittsburgh, one year later

Members of the JResponse team pose for a photo while volunteering at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

On the one year anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, staff at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh were given the day off. But the JCC was still able to offer programming to commemorate this horrific event, thanks to a team from JResponse who took time out of their busy schedules and flew in from throughout North America to lend a helping hand.

JResponse – an initiative of the JCC Association of North America, an organization that connects Jewish community centres (JCC) throughout the continent, including the one I work for, the Prosserman JCC in Toronto – allows JCC staff to volunteer to help Jewish communities in need. They can be called upon to go wherever there is a crisis, to help in any way needed. Usually, JResponders, as we are called, go in after the other social agencies, volunteers and media have gone.

To me, this idea was a true demonstration of tikun olam (repairing the world) and chesed (acts of kindness and compassion). And I could not think of a more concrete way to demonstrate these values than by being a part of the JResponse deployment to Pittsburgh.

On the day of the anniversary, the staff at the Pittsburgh JCC were given the opportunity to spend the day in any way they wished. There was a morning of therapeutic activities they could choose to attend, or they could spend time with their families. They could attend the commemoration activities in person, or by watching on TV. Regardless, they did not have to work, as we did their work for them.

Aside from all the therapeutic activities being offered at the JCC, the rest of the facilities (fitness centre, pool, etc.) were closed for the day. The 20 JResponders answered phones, guided people to where they were going, helped at the two blood drives that were going on and did anything else required of us.

I was assigned to the reception desk with Steve Wendel, the executive director of the JCC in Newport News, Va. We were responsible for answering phones, granting access to the building and helping people sign in. We wore distinctive blue T-shirts and many people inquired as to who we were. When they found out that we were 20 JCC professionals who came to help, the response was always the same: “Thank you so much for being here. It means so much.”

Some people just wanted to talk. I heard so many stories about that terrible day from people who had been there. I even had the opportunity to speak to a police officer who had been responsible for the Tree of Life synagogue for 25 years, as part of his daily beat. Everyone had a connection and a story. Many just needed to be heard, or to get a hug.

There were signs that said “Strength Not Hate” everywhere. From the airport monitors when I arrived, to signs in every store window, the support shown was remarkable. Pittsburgh is a community in the truest sense and the Pittsburgh JCC is a true hub within the community. It now contains a resiliency centre, which gives people a place to go, with support staff who can help and a space for community groups to meet. This grew out of the aftermath of the shooting, when the JCC became a hub for law enforcement, media, and the people in the Squirrel Hill community, whether Jewish or not.

Many of us see horrible things happening on the news and feel powerless to help. Going to Pittsburgh was my way of doing something to make a difference. Being able to work with my JCC colleagues from all over North America in a meaningful and concrete way was a blessing, as well. As we all sat in the large hall at the JCC to watch the live stream of the commemoration ceremony, we took each other’s hands, offered each other tissues and truly felt the emotions of this yahrzeit. We all went home feeling connected to the Pittsburgh community, and to each other.

Through JResponse, we made a made a difference and I am so grateful that I could play a small part in that. While the hope is that we will never be needed, should I be asked to deploy again to another crisis, I know I will be part of something special.

My home is at the Prosserman JCC and every day I guide the learning journey of children and watch them grow in a meaningful safe environment. After this experience, my drive to help others has grown immensely.

Cheri Szereszewski is the director of the Early Childhood Centre at the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.