Just Walk Beside Me

By Mark S. Young

Last year on October 27, after the deadliest massacre of Jews in the United States, many Jewish professionals felt as if we could only watch in shock and sadness, the pain of our peers hundreds or thousands of miles away. But on October 27 of this year, we had the opportunity to mobilize and take action. We traveled from across the continent to walk beside our brothers and sisters in grief, reflection, and community. We came to assist and accompany, hold and hug, allay the pain and alleviate the pressure. We came as JResponders to make an impact.

JResponse is the newest signature program from the JCC Association of North America. In partnership with IsraAID, JResponse trains JCC professionals to respond to crises, disasters, or other times of serious need, and to deploy our professionals to our sister communities when the request is made. In Pittsburgh late last month, what we technically did was answer phones, aided a blood drive, and told members that the gym was closed on this particular day. Yet our work was so much deeper. We came to be a physical presence, an emotional backstop. We came to affirm that we are one community in which no one is alone.

20 professionals from 16 JCCs, JWB, and JCC Association, including myself, traveled to the City of Steel to perform operational tasks that the JCC required of us. The JCC had closed its normal operations, yet its doors remained open to host two blood drives, a special program for local staff to gather, and to receive any individual who needed support into its new Community Resiliency Center: the 10.27 Healing Partnership.

We flew in from as far away as California and Canada, drove in from as close as Ohio and Virginia, to perform these functions so the local JCC staff didn’t have to, so they could be free to just be with their community and have the time to reflect and grieve.

A security guard staffed an entrance of the JCC with JResponder Mardi from Milwaukee. Her listening presence gave him the opportunity to share his experience as a lifelong member of Tree of Life Synagogue who hadn’t given himself time to pause. He was able to open up to Mardi about his memories with the Tree of Life congregation, and his sadness on this solemn day. They hugged and took a photo together, building a bond and a memory that soothed them both.

A couple from out of town stopped into the fitness entrance and began conversing with JResponder Daniel from Nashville. They were wearing their “Stronger than Hate” t-shirts and they had just come from the Tree of Life building and now to the JCC to pay respects and lend their support. We smiled at each other, expressed our appreciation for their presence, and we invited them to the 10.27 Healing Partnership because they too felt a need for support and to be with us. A new connection to the community was made.

Alexis, the Associate Executive Director of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, embraced returning JResponders Stephanie from Foster City, CA and Robin from Los Gatos, CA both as we arrived the day before and throughout the weekend. Alexis had met Stephanie, Robin, and many of our other JResponders late last Fall during our initial JResponse deployment in the weeks after the tragedy. Their excitement in seeing each other in the midst of sadness exemplified that we can, and must, hold multiple emotions at one time.

A community member approached JResponder Steph from Wilmington, Delaware and confided in Steph that she had never given blood before and was terrified. She still felt compelled though, to make this sacrifice to honor those lost in the shooting. Steph was touched by this story and consoled the would-be donor when it turned out she was ineligible. Steph was there to say to her, “You still did your part.”

Our deployment experience reminds me of the Hebrew song sung at many a Jewish camp and religious school, Lo Yisa Goy, with the second part we sing in English, “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend and together we will walk in the land of Hashem.”

Our actions during a deployment may differ depending on the nature of the situation, yet our impact may be just the same. We deploy to walk beside friends and colleagues, together, supporting physical and emotional recovery and building resilience. We are community and no one is alone.

Mark S. Young is the Director of JResponse at the JCC Association of North America. JResponse is JCC Association’s new signature program in which JCC professionals are trained to respond JCCs and their communities in a time of crisis, disaster, or other serious need.