November 21, 2018

The Centers of Our Communities, Every Day

By Rachael Speck

The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh played a critical role as a crisis command center in the hours, days and weeks following the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue.   I never thought that this warm, inclusive, bustling, community center of mine, one that I am proud to call my place of work, would be transformed into the location where family members, some of whom were my own colleagues and friends, were told that their loved ones had been gunned down in the worst act of antisemitism in U.S. history.  I never thought I would come to work to find dozens of law enforcement officials, American Red Cross workers and grief counselors setting up office space in rooms that were ordinarily used for Kindermusik, youth group meetings and art classes.

On Thursday, November 9, a few days after I had settled back into my daily routine of checking the news, I was saddened and dismayed to read stories about the shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California.   But as I just had been coached in dealing with the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, I found I desperately needed to search for the rays of sunshine in what was yet another horrific and senseless act of hatred. And there it was – the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, a city-funded community center for youth in grades 7 through 12.  Right after the shooting, it became a crisis command center where officials directed people for information, where families reunited with survivors, and where others found out that their loved ones had died.  It immediately became home base for law enforcement, city officials, the American Red Cross, grief counselors and others who needed to support victims and their families, much like the JCC after the Tree Of Life shooting.

Prior to the shootings, the JCC and the Thousand Oaks Teen Center already had a lot in common.  Both organizations were in the business of engaging hundreds of teens every year.  They provided a supportive environment where teens could meet other teens, build their own communities, volunteer, play in sports leagues, engage in learning opportunities, build life skills, volunteer, travel and more.   Each created a special and safe environment with a comfortable and inclusive “hang out” space.  Now the JCC and the Thousand Oaks Teen Center also took on the roles of community crisis management and comfort as well.

While things at the JCC have “calmed down,” so to speak, as we attempt to establish a “new normal” and begin the healing process, the same could not be said for the Thousand Oaks Teen Center. In less than 24 hours following the Boardline Bar & Grill shooting, the center expanded from just supporting shooting victims’ families to also sheltering evacuees from the nearby Woolsey wildfire.   More than 250 people have been living in the center’s gymnasium.

Being so close to the Tree of Life shooting, not only as a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community but also the spouse of a Tree of Life employee, I was inspired by the call to action this gritty teen center took on in the moments following two traumatic events for the local community.  As a staff member of the JCC’s Emma Kaufmann Camp, I am still reeling from the tragedy that took place in my home community.   I cannot imagine having to deal with much more, let alone turning the JCC into an evacuation shelter for 250 people.  I admire the Thousand Oaks staff for their resilience and their ability to respond to their community’s urgent needs.  My thoughts continue to be with them during a very stressful time that we as community center staff can all too well relate to.

Our purpose as a community center is to ensure the healthy development of the Pittsburgh Jewish community; to be a gathering place for family, friends and social groups.  And as our mission states: To nurture people and connect community.   On this Thanksgiving, I am particularly grateful for the swift and substantive response of both the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh and further realize the important role of community centers not only in the happiest of times, but also in support of communities in their greatest times of need.