(January 18, 2019 / JNS) It was a difficult stunt already, and this time I had to do it in front of 42,000 people during the final of the March Madness Tournament. It was one of the scariest moments I had as a college cheerleader. A tuck-basket-toss involves four teammates throwing me in the air while I do a backflip. If I flipped too soon, the stunt would land short, and I would fall on my face in front of the crowd and on national TV. It felt impossible, but when the moment came my teammates threw me as hard as they could, and I flipped the highest I ever had at the exact right moment.
Then on the morning of Oct. 27, 2018, another seemingly impossible moment came as millions of Americans watched me and my community. An anti-Semitic gunman shot and killed 11 people inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—a place that has become my city and where the Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh have become my people.
When I accepted the position to be a Hillel International Springboard Fellow at the Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh in the spring of 2017, I had no idea what was ahead of me. The program places young, aspiring professionals on campuses across the country to create innovative programing for Jewish college students. When Hillel chose me, I wasn’t sure why. I’m not planning to become a rabbi and I don’t possess a degree in Jewish studies. My college experiences were filled with classes in elementary education, cheerleading at basketball games and sorority events.
The morning that the Tree of Life tragedy occurred, all I wanted to do was stay in my apartment and hide. But I thought of my supportive, professional team at Hillel and the dozens of students who were headed there in that moment to see us. This was a tuck-basket-toss moment. The Jewish community of Pittsburgh was in the spotlight, and it was time to go.
I rushed onto campus. As familiar faces walked past, I ran to hug them. Some students wanted to talk, and others didn’t need any words. These were powerful moments. Moments when we just looked at one another from across Schenley Quad, ran to each other and knew the other’s thoughts. Later, I stood outside the student union with a blue poster that read “Strength Board” for people to sign. All students, regardless of their faith identity or background, were welcome to show their support.
“This is like 9/11, but for the Jewish people,” one student said. “I’m scared we’re next,” another student mumbled with fear. “Are we safe celebrating Shabbat?” asked a third. The truth was, I had many of the same thoughts, but I couldn’t let it show. I, too, was struggling to understand this event as a Jew.
Every single student I spoke to shared their feelings and then immediately told me their action plan for moving forward to help their community heal. The Jewish students in fraternities and sororities tabled outside the student union offering cards for students to sign that would be sent to the Tree of Life synagogue. Hillel’s “Challah for Hunger” recruited 230 student volunteers during the week following the tragedy to bake 575 loaves of challah to send to Tree of Life and all over the community. “Loaves of love trump hate,” one of the “Challah for Hunger” board members posted. They couldn’t be more right.
The Jewish students at Pitt don’t quit. Seeing them rise to the occasion brought light back into my life. They were showing up, and that gave me the strength to support them. I’ll never forget the line of students waiting to talk to me; it included a freshman who was planning the upcoming Shabbat and a senior we hadn’t seen all semester. They were coming to me during a time of need. “I just needed a hug,” one of them said. “I was looking for you, and I knew I could find you out here,” another told me.
When I was selected to be a fellow, I was worried I wouldn’t be enough. But I realize now that I was meant to be a here; I was meant to work with these students at this exact moment. To flip higher than I ever have before. G-d brought me to the Steel City for them, and because of my students, I am no longer afraid.
Ariel Walovitch is the Springboard Innovation Fellow at Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh serving the campuses of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University and Duquesne University.