JResponse: Coming Together for Pittsburgh

By Shoshanah Horne, J Camp Director

As I sit in the airport waiting for my now 5-hour delayed flight I have some time to reflect on my experience being in Pittsburgh for the past 6 days. 

The Pittsburgh community is welcoming, honest, and warm. You feel it as soon as you enter the airport. Every person from the greater Pittsburgh community I interacted with was incredibly kind and genuine. In my LYFT from the airport to my hotel at 12:30 am I was exhausted knowing I had to wake up at 6 am to shower and get ready to go to the JCC. With a three-hour time difference I was feeling nervous I wouldn’t perform the way I knew I could, contribute all I could, or even ask the right questions. But what I learned from this experience was that there is no right question, no task too small, and no one who isn’t deeply hurting beneath the surface. 

I arrived on Friday to the JCC of Pittsburgh and sheepishly walked in the door and was directed to the hall where the J hosts community lunch for seniors each day. There, a team from all across the US arrived to be prepped on the events of October 27, 2018, and where they are at this very moment. I was introduced to colleagues from around the country who all had the same intention. Just be present. Take deep breaths. Be thankful for what we have and most importantly, listen. 

I was assigned to a project in the Center for Loving Kindness which is where I met Melissa. She is a creator, innovator, curator, enthusiastic spirit, and deeply caring woman. She had been working with the rabbi for the past year on a program bringing interfaith leaders together to have crucial conversations. She asked me to clean up a data series to ensure that the relationships they have been nourishing stay strong in the years to come. But without a doubt as soon as we started talking about “her” Pittsburgh, her vision for art as an entry point to Jewish connection, and the ever-changing demographic of the Jewish people in cities around the country I was hooked on her. 

It was already 11 am and I was off to the J Cafe to serve community lunch. All the JResponders gathered by the regular volunteers to get the low down and I was assigned to serve beef stew. About 85 seniors came through that day for lunch but the one I loved the most was Bella. It happened to be her 84th birthday and I insisted we sing to her. Bella is an immigrant from Russia who made a home and raised her family in Pittsburgh. She lives alone and her stoic presence is felt and loved. She calls every senior in the room her friend as each person came up and wished her a happy birthday. They had collected a couple dollars as a gift and even handed her their milk cartons (Bella uses them to make kosher cheese). Bella would ask me questions. “Are you religious?” “Do you keep kosher?” “Where are you from?” “Do you like children?” “How old are you?” “What do you do for the JCC?” and the kicker… “Why aren’t you married?” I knew where she was going with all of this. She gave me a hug and then grabbed her cane and sauntered over to the other ladies asking if I could be her lunch partner on Monday. 

Over the weekend I was able to explore Pittsburgh. I met up with Melissa from the JCC for famous Mineo’s pizza and discussed how to engage young adults in Jewish life, wandered a cool downtown district with a new San Diego JCC colleague, and got lost walking around the cultural district. I kept telling myself to visit Tree of Life Synagogue but for some reason I couldn’t. I had the time and no schedule stopping me but I just couldn’t walk up the block. 

I remember what I was doing on October 27, 2018. The night before I was in Seattle and had an urge to attend my local synagogue. I hadn’t felt that urge in a long time but something told me I needed to go. As I woke up on October 27 my heart sank and I cried for hours on end. I replayed the day I went to camp after the shooting at the Los Angeles JCC when I was a kid, the day after the bomb threat at our own SJCC, and the first time someone had called me a “dirty jew.” We as Jews carry a collective trauma. We wear it like armor on our bodies collecting all of the years of anti-Semitism. And when things like this happen, wherever they are around the world, to whichever Jewish community, it is as if it happened to us.

On Monday I continued to work on my project and then headed to community lunch at 11 am. There was Bella waiting for me. I donned by baseball cap and apron and served broccoli and rice. Bella also had a surprise for me. She brought her favorite nephew with her. She had told all of the regular volunteers before I had arrived from the office upstairs that he was waiting to meet me. I can’t help but laugh at her good intention.

Monday was the last day for JResponse but I decided to come in the next day because my flight wasn’t until much later. I headed into the office where the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh had taken over the whole JCC for Mitzvah Day. Families running though the building excitedly making birthday bags and PB&J sandwiches. And at 11 am I served my last meal with Bella, this time without her nephew (though she did mention he was picking her up at 1:15 pm if I wanted to stick around and say hello).

To all the staff at the Pittsburgh JCC: you are amazing. You don your name badge like a badge of honor to work in a beautiful community serving those who benefit greatly from your services. Take some much-needed time to rest. As horrible as the reason why, I am so glad I was able to meet you. You will always be a part of me and I hope to visit soon.