Officials from two Bay Area JCCs recently returned from several days in Pittsburgh, where they lent emotional support to colleagues still reeling from the Tree of Life synagogue shootings in late October. They came back with a renewed sense of purpose.
Stephanie Levin, chief engagement and innovation officer at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, and Robin Vasilakos, manager of the Center for Social Responsibility at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, went to Pittsburgh Dec. 13-18 as part of the first deployment of JResponse, a new program of the JCC Association of North America in partnership with the Israeli relief organization IsraAid.
Levin and Vasilakos joined a handful of other JCC officials from around the country to give a break to their Pittsburgh colleagues, who have been working long hours since the shooting and who were in need of help and healing. The visitors answered phones, served meals and even assisted with office paperwork.
“I can’t do their job, the heavy lifting of helping the community and working with the families of the victims,” Levin told J. “But I can give them a hug and just stand with them. Sometimes we can help by just showing up and seeing what they’re going through and listening to them.”
JResponse was created in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s 2017 rampage through Houston. It was envisioned as a way of bringing JCC professionals from outside an affected region to help deal with a natural disaster, but got its first run after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings that killed 11 people.
Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America, said workers from 40 JCCs around the country have traveled to Pittsburgh during the past eight weeks to help give beleaguered colleagues — some who had been working up to 16 hours a day since the Oct. 27 shootings — a day off.
“We are the largest skilled professional employers on the Jewish landscape, with 6,000 full-time staff and 32,000 part-time and seasonal workers,” Krakow said. “We are the principal reservoir of available and able talent.”
Levin said the Pittsburgh JCC workers shared what an emotional time it had been for them.
“To walk in not knowing anyone, and walk out with a dozen new friends that I will stay in touch with, was really extraordinary. I feel like I got so much more out of it than answering the phones for a few hours,” the PJCC official said. “From the moment I got there, they treated me like family.”
Levin said she may go back on her own again to offer more help to her Pittsburgh JCC colleagues. Just as in the 2017 Sonoma County fires and the wildfires in Butte County last month, she said, the recovery process will be long and arduous.
“It’s not over in three months. This community will be recovering from this for the next few years, if not forever,” she said. “I want to continue to show up however I can for them.”