We Were Given T-shirts
– My JResponse Experience


October 25 – 28, 2019
Written by Cheri Szereszewski
Director of the Prosserman JCC Daycare and Preschool in Toronto, Ontario

We were given t-shirts so we could be identified but we were also given name tags with the Pittsburgh JCC logo on it and our name.  

When I first heard about JResponse at the JCCA Professional Conference last year I was so interested in finding out more about this amazing initiative.  The idea behind the JCCA initiative is that a group of JCC staff from throughout the JCC community could volunteer to go help Jewish communities in need. With permission from their Executive Directors they would be released from their jobs at home. They would be called upon to go wherever there was a crisis to help in any way needed. The difference is that usually JResponders, as we are called, would normally go after all the other social agencies, volunteers and media were gone. To me this was truly demonstrating Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Chesed (acts of kindness and compassion).

As the Early Childhood Director at a JCC I have worked diligently to incorporate the principles and lenses of the Sheva Learning framework into our program. The lenses take our Jewish values and help us find concrete ways to teach them to the children.  I cannot think of a more concrete way to demonstrate these values than being a part of the JResponse deployment to Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh JCC gave all their staff the day off for the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. The staff could 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- we did that for them.

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

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I was assigned to the reception desk with Steve Wendel, the Executive Director of the JCC in Newport News, Virginia, answering phones, granting access to the building and helping people sign in.  We were distinctive in our blue t-shirts and people asked who we all 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."  I was so humbled and grateful to be there. My response was "You are welcome; I am honoured to be here to help." 

Some people just wanted to talk.  I heard so many stories about that terrible day from people who had been there- in the synagogue, in the neighbourhood.  Even from a police officer who was helping on Sunday and 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.  A local coffee shop sent over coffee and bagels for the police officers who were keeping us safe that day. When people in the Brueggers heard that they were donating the coffee and food, they insisted on giving money to the owner to offset the cost.  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.  This was a community in the truest sense and they were actively showing the Jewish community that they were there for them.

This JCC is a true hub within this community. They have built a resiliency centre which gives people a place to come just to have a space to be (even if they don't want to talk), support staff who can help, and a space for community groups (like AA) to meet. This grew out of the circumstances of the shooting that took place when the JCC became command central for law enforcement, media, and the people in the Squirrel Hill community, whether Jewish or not.

So often we see things on the news and we feel like we wish we knew how to help (other than financially, which is easy).  I know that being in Pittsburgh at this time was appreciated but I so appreciated the opportunity to be able to DO something. Being able to work with my JCC colleagues from all different departments and from all over North America in a meaningful and concrete way. During our preliminary Zoom meeting 2 weeks ago and orientation when we arrived, we quickly formed close relationships as we knew we were sharing something special. As we all sat in the large hall at the JCC ago watch the live stream of the Commemoration ceremony we took each other's hands, offered each other kleenexes and truly felt the emotions of this yahrtzeit.  We all go home feeling connected to the Pittsburgh community, each other and our JCC community.  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.

A few of the takeaways that I brought back to Toronto with me included how as a JCC we help build connections, we support our community and that it is so important to give to those in need - to those we know and to strangers equally. We were given t-shirts so we could be identified but we were also given name tags with the Pittsburgh JCC logo on it and our name and this truly made me feel like I belonged.

We were supporting the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community as they joined to reflect, to remember, and to build resilience as we commemorated one year since the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue. 

I would be happy to speak to anyone who is interested in volunteering to be part of JResponse to tell you more about this incredible initiative and my experiences in Pittsburgh.