By Stephanie Zoltowski
By Stephanie Zoltowski

For a period of 10 days in December, Jewish Community Center staff from around North America filled in as JResponders to provide the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh with an opportunity for respite and healing with their families after the devastating attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.  I had the opportunity to go to the JCC and work in a variety of positions and serve as a JResponder on one of these days.

When I received the email asking for volunteers to go to the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, I didn’t even think twice about it. I have always been involved in community service and have loved helping others no matter who it is or the circumstances. I had no idea what job I would be assigned or who I would be working with, but I knew I wanted to be part of the healing process for Pittsburgh and the JCC community.

In this fast-paced world where we are all under pressure to think and act quickly, it can be incredibly difficult to slow ourselves down. I wanted to take time to breathe and really take in the experience from every aspect; I had no idea how beneficial my trip to Pittsburgh would be for me.

Never having been directly affected by a tragedy similar to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life, I expected to see a crippled community with memorials to those who lost their lives everywhere and people struggling to cope. I expected to see tears and a lack of energy in the building; my expectations couldn’t have been further from the truth.

As I walked into the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh on a very cold Friday morning, I was greeted by smiling faces, children headed up to preschool, and an unexpected hustle and bustle every which way I looked. I had the opportunity to spend the day with many of the staff at the JCC to assist staff in any way they needed. In that time, I learned how their department and community responded firsthand after the hateful tragedy and got to know many of them on a personal level. I was mindful of what I said to ensure I didn’t upset anyone, not realizing how much healing had already taken place.

The more people I talked to, staff and JCC members, the more I began noticing an enormous sense of pride in their community. They all held their heads high, acknowledged what happened, and indirectly made it very clear they are a tremendously resilient community who with the support of their friends, family and community, can and will overcome anything. It was clear to me that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Rather than seeing a story on the news or reading an article, I was able to be present in that moment, look the staff and community members in their eyes and feel what they were feeling and see healing right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t have asked for anything more genuine.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Tree of Life after my shift at the JCC. As I drove up to it, the building was dark and locked up. Standing in front of the memorials of those who lost their lives on the day of the shooting, it felt dark.

Adjacent to the memorials were dozens and dozens of Post-It notes the community had written and put up on the wall next to the front doors. People had written notes from all over the world, several from Israel.

Two notes in particular stood out to me. One read, “You are not alone.” The other read, “We cannot change the past, but we can inspire the future.” These two notes, similar to many of the others I read, inspired me to return to Detroit and share my experiences with friends, family and coworkers.

No matter the amount of hate that exists in this world, communities will always come together and support one another.


Stephanie Zoltowski is the director of special needs at the JCC of Metro Detroit in West