A memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. (Hane Grace Yagel)
A memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. (Hane Grace Yagel)

Up close and personal with Pittsburgh

On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, I was at home when I first saw the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It took me a few minutes to process that it was even real — because how could this be real?

Like tens of thousands of other Jews, and people of other faiths around the world, I was horrified, terrified, furious and devastated, all in the same breath. Pittsburgh felt so far away, and so close, all at the same time.

Six weeks after the shooting, I found myself in Pittsburgh for four days, deployed by the JCC Association as part of JResponse, a new signature initiative in partnership with IsraAid, to provide relief for staff at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh.

We were sent to Pittsburgh to help however we could.

I answered phones, signed guests in and served food at the senior lunch program. More than anything else, I listened. Every single person I met — community members, JCC staff, even several Uber drivers — had a story to share of their connection to the JCC, to the Tree of Life congregation, to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, to Pittsburgh.

Everywhere I walked I saw the strength and resilience of this community. “Stronger than Hate” signs were plastered in the windows of every home and business. The deep grief of this community was visceral, palpable and at times overwhelming, and so was the deep connectedness, strength and love.

While my time in Pittsburgh was short, the impact of being with this community, and especially of connecting with my extraordinary JCC colleagues, was profound. I came with the intent to offer support and left with a dozen new friends who quickly became a part of my life, embracing me like family and allowing me to embrace them during a very vulnerable time in their lives.

One year later, on the morning of Oct. 27, 2019, I was again in the Palm Court, the main lobby of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. It was both surreal and comforting to be back there, I felt both out of place and completely at home.

Wearing my bright blue “JResponse” T-shirt, I was one of 20 JCC professionals from across North America who went to Pittsburgh for the weekend to support our JCC colleagues and the community at large.

As I was greeting people and giving hugs, I saw one of my colleagues I connected with last December. We hugged for a long time; it was an emotional reunion. “Let me look at you,” she said as we finally pulled apart. “You really came back to us!” I told her there was nowhere else I could be but there.

We went because we know they would do the same for any one of us

While I was assigned a variety of tasks for the day, my real purpose in being there, and our group’s real purpose, was to show up. I went back to Pittsburgh to support my colleagues and friends, to witness this day with them and surround them with love and care. I went to listen and to hold them tight as they marked this first year.

We went to Pittsburgh to see our colleagues, to see this community, to not look away from the 2018 tragedy that shattered so many hearts here, and around the globe.

We went to Pittsburgh to bear witness. To honor the memories of the 11 people murdered, their families, and the three congregations affected by this horrific event. To be with them as they mourned.

We went to Pittsburgh because when we join our hands and hearts and voices together, we truly are “Stronger Than Hate.” We went to Pittsburgh because no matter where we live, where we pray, what we believe in, this has affected all of us.

We showed up so that the Pittsburgh community would know they are never alone. We went because it takes a village to get through a day like this. We went because we feel their pain, their suffering and their loss as our own, in our own hearts.

We went because we know they would do the same for any one of us

When I look closely at this community and the people in it, I see resilience. I see bravery. I see tenacity and grit and determination. I see connection and hope and love. I see incredible individuals who came together to build an extraordinary community that is greater than the sum of its parts, a community that has shown the world what grace, courage and strength look like.

I wish the reason I showed up in Pittsburgh was different, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to get to know this community and so many special people in it.

Pittsburgh has been forever changed by the events of October 27, 2018, and I have been forever changed by my time with this community. I am inspired by the way all the communal organizations and individuals have worked together to care for the community and the openness and vulnerability the community has shown in sharing the journey of the past year.

It is not a lesson I wish on any community, and yet, if we’re willing to look closely, it is something all communities can learn from.

This piece first appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

Stephanie Levin
Stephanie Levin

Stephanie Levin is the chief engagement and innovation officer at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.