JResponse®: Adapting to Support the JCC Movement in a Pandemic


By Mark S. Young

Responding to crises is a curious venture. We can train and prepare for a given disaster, harnessing the wisdom and know-how gained from past experiences and best practices, yet every crisis presents its own challenges. Some we can anticipate, some we cannot.

On March 9, JResponse®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America, was putting finishing touches on a JResponder training slated for Houston, Texas, later that month. In partnership with IsraAID, we were planning to welcome 30 JCC professionals from 27 JCCs to the four-day, experience to learn to respond effectively to crises and disasters. We’d chosen Houston – home of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC – because JResponse® was born out of the devastation caused by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, and we had a lot to learn, both from the JCC staff and the larger community.

The next day, amid the deepening COVID-19 crisis, we postponed the training. By the end of the week, our world was shutting down.

JResponse® is no stranger to adapting, however. Originally formed to respond solely to natural disasters, we expanded our scope and, increasingly, began to emphasize both emotional and physical support after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. Of course, we could not have anticipated a multi-faceted crisis such as COVID-19 nor the disparate responses it would require.

As the ground shifted under our feet, JResponse adapted by adhering to these four guidelines, refocusing our efforts to respond effectively to scenarios created by the pandemic.

Stick With Your Why: JResponse, at its core, involves more than responding to crises, also aiming to build bridges, elevate talent, and sustain communities – in JCCs, throughout the movement, and beyond. Although JResponders generally are not traveling long distances to other JCCs to offer in-person support anytime soon, we still can fulfill our why by finding alternative ways to respond to critical needs.

Dismantle Assumptions: Previously, JResponse typically responded to crises after they had occurred. With no definitive end to this pandemic in sight, we can’t wait to offer support to those in need. We’ve learned that, even if it’s imperfect, we can provide much needed connection and real support through Zoom, a phone call, or a socially distanced visit. What’s more, although JResponse’s original model assumed a limited number of JCCs would be in crisis at once, leaving the balance of the field ready to respond, COVID-19 has left the entire JCC Movement in crisis. Even so, scores of JCC professionals stand ready to respond, demonstrating that JResponse can help JCCs support themselves and, even when challenged, if they desire, provide support in their own communities and to other JCCs. Throughout this pandemic, for example, many JCCs have hosted blood drives and expanded essential services such as preparing and delivering meals to older adults.

Experiment With New Ideas and Modalities: JResponse teaches skills that build resilience. In mid-March we prepared to teach these skills in face-to-face sessions, using materials and a curriculum we had developed. Instead, we shared the materials online with JResponders who had been planning to attend the training in Houston. The following week, we began offering a 90-minute abbreviated version to JCC professionals, providing meaningful and applicable JResponse training to nearly 200 JCC professionals. In another example, during the spring, as many JCCs planned to reopen, JResponse created a rededication ritual and training to help staff return to working at a JCC in this new normal. Nearly two-dozen JCCs have used the materials to date, including the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, whose rededication ceremony strengthened the community. In both instances, we experimented, doing our best to adapt – and readapt based on feedback – JResponse to the needs and limitations of the moment.

Partner, Partner, Partner: To extend our reach and expand the resources in our toolkit, JResponse collaborated with IsraAID to offer JCC professionals and members stress relief and self-care webinars. Our partnership with two different Repair the World initiatives has allowed JCCs to serve the community-at-large and Repair the World volunteers to serve at JCCs as needed. Most recently, JResponse began partnering with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which will teach Jewish mindfulness to 25 JCC professionals. During the next several months, this core group, in turn, will teach hundreds of their JCC peers, helping to ease anxieties and build resilience. This partnership in particular brings JResponse fully back to its why by promoting bridge-building among staff, elevating the skills of the JCC workforce, and providing tools to sustain our communities over time.

With plenty of uncertainty still surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, JResponse will continue to use these guidelines to focus our efforts during this crisis and others in the future. JResponse will offer meaningful, timely responses to a multitude of needs without ever losing sight of our why. Face-to-face, on Zoom, or through materials online, JResponse aspires to be a source of hope and positivity to help individuals and communities navigate today’s difficulties and become stronger, healthier, and more resilient for tomorrow.

Mark S Young is the director of JResponse at JCC Association of North America.