Photo credit: Matt Unger

By Mark S. Young

By their nature, crises take people by surprise. Computer models, knowledgeable experts, and well-executed plans can help us best prepare communities to mitigate the impact and aftermath of a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, earthquake or, worse yet, an act of violence. Yet, no crisis is completely predictable. There are struggles that can only be met once disaster strikes.

Americans Jews experienced this stark truth last fall. Eleven of our brothers and sisters were murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. The trauma of this attack continues well beyond the day on which it happened, well after first-responders and news crews leave the scene.

As a shattered community struggled to serve the wounded and the mourning, the Jews of Pittsburgh turned quite naturally to their Jewish Community Center. The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh (JCCPGH) became an impromptu crisis center in those first terrifying hours and throughout the days and weeks that followed. It was all hands on deck. Staff and leadership tended to emotional, psychological, and administrative needs – even as they were, themselves, reeling from the horror; from the loss of family, friends and colleagues. It was in this moment that JCC Association of North America was able to help meet those needs with JResponse, a program designed specifically to help the helpers.

JResponse was born in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Houston Jewish community in 2017. Upon reflection and in partnership with the JCC leadership in Houston, JCC Association President and CEO Doron Krakow discovered that the most meaningful support the agency could provide to assist their community would be to deploy the field’s most valuable asset: our people. 

In Pittsburgh, JResponse’s first deployment, staff members from 46 JCCs across the United States and Canada stepped into the shoes of their colleagues at an hour of need. They provided task support, a little time off, and the invaluable knowledge that they were not alone. The model proved powerful indeed in the aftermath of the Tree of Life attack. JResponse helped meet the needs of a community in crisis and gave JResponders a chance to work together in another JCC community; a community in need. JResponse showed everyone who took part, both those who needed help and those who gathered from near and far to provide it, a profound insight into the meaning of a continent-wide Jewish community.

JResponse elevates the role of our JCC professionals. Through JResponse we both can call on our people to share their expertise and passion when needed most and provide them with the comfort that comes with the knowledge that if and when they find themselves in crisis, their peers will be “at the ready” to lend a hand.

I know well the profound impact of JCCs. My own three-decades-long JCC journey began in second grade with swim classes at the Mandel JCC of Cleveland, Ohio. After that it was Anisfield Day Camp, 14 glorious summers at Camp Wise as both a camper and staff member, and my first full-time job in the human resources department of the 92nd Street Y, a flagship JCC on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Though my career has also taken me elsewhere both within and beyond the Jewish professional sector, I never really left JCCs. I’ve proudly served on the board of Pinemere Camp, a JCC Movement affiliate, and during my time serving the William Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America had the pleasure to help develop the Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute and the JCC Leadership Training Institute for mid and senior-level JCC professionals. Yet, I must admit that it was at summer camp, where I learned and taught the songs that I sing to my two young children today, that my future as a Jewish professional was truly born.

My experience and education have taken me from the study of nonprofit management to an immersion in Judaic studies, from managing human resources to coordinating experiential learning initiatives. I have seen up close the impact of empowering people to support their peers. It elevates everyone’s talents and abilities to contribute to the challenges of those around them. In short, we are all served when we serve those in need.

It is difficult to predict when and where the next crisis may arise, what it will look like, or how it will affect the community it hits – which is why it’s so important to continue to develop JResponse into a fully realized, nimble legion of dedicated JCC professionals ready to serve. I’m excited to have the opportunity to inaugurate the role of director of JResponse beginning this month. In partnership with JCC Association leadership and JCC professionals across the U.S. and Canada, we will grow JResponse into a program that powerfully and profoundly serves the JCCs that need it, thus serving and strengthening the broader continental Jewish community.

Will JResponders assist a Gulf Coast JCC as it prepares for a tropical storm, or help fill positions on a substitute basis after flood waters recede? What will local JCC staffers need from their peers in the course of recovery, and what might our role be when the effects of trauma linger? We will thoroughly examine these kinds of questions, among many others, as we develop JResponse, knowing that none will have one-and-done answers. We will therefore ensure JResponse remains open and flexible, attentive and available.

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve developed a deep love for exploring what it means to give to others, to use our passion and energy to effectively support the people around us. I see in JResponse a profoundly meaningful tool with which we can draw on that passion and that energy both to meet immediate needs and to build lasting bridges.

All across North America, JCCs represent our community’s beating heart. Whether personal trainers, administrative professionals, Jewish educators, operational staff, or security, the experiences of our staff and leadership are shared. Each one of us draws upon a love of Judaism and a commitment to building Jewish community that welcomes friends and neighbors of all faiths through our doors each day. We are a unique and vibrant family.

When the next crisis occurs, no matter what the circumstances may be, we know this: in a JCC’s hour of need, we’re the ones who know best how to help. JResponse channels our collective knowledge, insight and experience, so that together, even in the face of deep trauma, we can become something far greater than the sum of our parts.

Mark S. Young is the incoming director of JResponse, a signature initiative of JCC Association of North America.