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How the Power of Ritual Made Us Strong

by Annie Keith

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, it became increasingly clear that the Hineni: 4-day JResponder training orientation scheduled for March 23-26 in Houston would be postponed. I had been looking forward to participating in this initiative offered by JResponse®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America, and I was disappointed. However, as we all began to realize the gravity of the worldwide crisis, the orientation was not the most pressing topic on my mind.

The JResponder training—along with many other programs—quickly shifted to online meetings. In the training, we had the opportunity to connect with our JCC colleagues throughout North America as a source of support, comfort, and strength. Although the JResponse® program, like all the professional cohort calls being facilitated by JCC Association during this initial period were meant to help us navigate the crisis from programmatic, marketing, and operations perspectives, they also were about how each of us was weathering the crisis emotionally and physically—thanks to the others in the group and especially because of JResponse® director Mark S. Young’s guidance and leadership. We were, of course, training to support JCCs in crisis, so we couldn’t have had better on-the-job training.

As JCCs began to plan to reopen, even as they continued online programming, we all had long to-do lists that included marketing strategies, physical plant set-ups, COVID-19 guidelines, staffing plans, and more. We also shared a common goal: To support our colleagues and the communities we serve.

As our JCC in West Hartford planned for re-opening, Mark and the JResponse® team provided a wonderful resource and trained us to use it to meet that goal. Introducing the idea of “Reopening as an Opportunity for Rededication,” he spoke eloquently about readiness, relief, recovery, and resilience, noting, “Creating ritual moments will provide some relief to our whole community, aid in the recovery of staff who anchor our JCC community, enhance our resilience, and increase our community’s readiness for future challenges.” Just as we opened the doors to our JCC, Mark’s words helped me see our reopening in a new way, changing my perspective from what I was feeling and struggling with to how I could help create a positive experience for all.

With my new outlook front and center, I prepared our staff to celebrate Shabbat that first week. I urged them to look at how much we had done to get to where we were and to come together to acknowledge how we are supporting our entire community and each other as this crisis continues. Our online connections and using a wonderful Jewish ritual as part of our reopening are two things that make me proud, and I hope that’s true for our staff as well. Although we often celebrate Shabbat to mark the end our week, this Shabbat celebration was like none we had ever seen before.

As I looked around the room, reading “The Power of Ritual,” I was so grateful for this important moment and to share it with our staff. As we continued our ritual, lighting the candles and reciting the “Blessing of the Face Masks,” we all felt connected—and, indeed, we are connected, by our shared reopening experiences, our commitment to our community, and our dedication to support each other and our members, especially during these challenging times. As we closed our ritual, singing Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach: A Prayer for Healing,” many of us were unable to contain our emotion.

Although JCCs and other organizations continue to face difficult decisions, stressful situations, and no small measure of grief, it is critical that we create such moments—to come together, to reflect, and to be grateful. Our reopening moment may not have been what we expected and it may have looked and felt different than other moments we’ve experienced together, but acknowledging it and commemorating it will help us heal and move forward with purpose and strength.

As I continue to learn about and experience JResponse®, its positive effects and the influence it can have on our professionals and the communities we serve, I increasingly appreciate the opportunity to work together with this team, investing in our stories, our shared beliefs, and our desire to serve one another and our JCC communities.

For another perspective on how JCC communities provide strength and comfort in challenging times, check out “Resilience in the Face of Traumatic Events.”

Annie Keith has been the chief operations officer at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut, since 2007. It is the place both her children grew up and her whole family enjoys as a second home. Annie previously worked for the YMCA in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Connecticut.



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