Holocaust Center executive director departs; organization continues under Tree of Life
TransitionsHolocaust Center of Pittsburgh

Holocaust Center executive director departs; organization continues under Tree of Life

Announcement from Lauren Bairnsfather generates moment of gratitude for outgoing Jewish professional

Lauren Bairnsfather joins artist Luigi Toscano at the opening of “Lest We Forget,” an exhibit at the University of Pittsburgh, on Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Hector Corante, courtesy of Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh
Lauren Bairnsfather joins artist Luigi Toscano at the opening of “Lest We Forget,” an exhibit at the University of Pittsburgh, on Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Hector Corante, courtesy of Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh

Following the Feb. 16 announcement that Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Executive Director Lauren Bairnsfather is leaving her position, colleagues and friends congratulated the Jewish professional and told the Chronicle about Bairnsfather’s achievements and ability to direct the Holocaust Center toward a promising future.

The Holocaust Center, previously overseen by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, recently came under the auspices of Tree of Life, a nonprofit dedicated to the elimination of antisemitism.

Nick Haberman met Bairnsfather days after she became executive director in 2015. The two worked on a project implementing Act 70, a 2014 piece of Pennsylvania legislation that “strongly encourages school entities” to teach students about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations. Haberman followed their project by creating an educational initiative called LIGHT (Leadership through Innovation in Genocide and Human rights Teaching).

Bairnsfather helped grow the initiative “from just one school to a program with more than 10,000 students in five Southwestern Pennsylvania counties that have access to a trained LIGHT Coordinator,” Haberman said.

Bairnsfather relied on “traditional and nontraditional approaches” to create and bolster relationships with other organizations, including Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, 1Hood Media and Prime Stage Theater.

“Lauren saw the best way to combat antisemitism is to be an ally — to help combat all forms of hate for all groups of people,” he said.

From left to right: Tree of Life member David Kalla, Seton Hill University President Mary Finger, Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Bairnsfather, artist Susan Ribnick and Director of the National Center for Holocaust Education James Paharik. Photo by David Rullo

CHUTZ-POW! project coordinator Marcel Walker worked with Bairnsfather for six years after she hired him at the Holocaust Center.

During their time together, Walker said he often marveled at her ability to facilitate challenging conversations with various stakeholders.

“The Holocaust is an extremely difficult topic to discuss in depth — it's going to target emotions for a lot of people,” Walker said. “Lauren as an academic understands that; she understands the facts of it. But Lauren as a person, and as a professional, knows how to talk about that really difficult subject matter — sometimes with people who are directly affected by it, like survivors and their families — but she also facilitates conversations geared toward healing and towards broader community understanding.”

Along with welcoming differing perspectives, Bairnsfather was committed to building a dedicated team at the Holocaust Center, Walker said.

Jackie Reese worked with Bairnsfather for five years and described her as a role model and someone who advocated for her staff while embodying the best of “female leadership.”

“From a managerial role, Lauren was very good at creating a team and letting people grow within their position,” Reese said.

After joining the Holocaust Center as a marketing and education associate, Reese later served as manager. Last month, she left the Holocaust Center to become the inaugural chief of staff of the new Tree of Life. She credited Bairnsfather with serving as the “bridge” between the Holocaust Center and Tree of Life.

Lauren Bairnsfather shakes hands with Gov. Tom Wolf. Photo courtesy of Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh

The mission of the Holocaust Center has evolved over the years, Jewish Federation President and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein said.

“When the Jewish Federation started the Holocaust Center decades ago, we envisioned it as a place for Holocaust survivors in our community to get the support and connection they needed,” he said. “Over time, that mission has evolved as the need for Holocaust education became more apparent and more important. Dr. Bairnsfather played a critical role in evolving the mission and in making the Holocaust Center successful.”

After the Oct. 27, 2018, murder of 11 Jews inside the Tree of Life building, Bairnsfather had to “navigate that and rework the vision of what it meant to be a Holocaust Center in this city,” Reese said. “Lauren did so much in making the Holocaust Center become a part of Tree of Life.”

Barbara Shapira, board chair of the Holocaust Center, credited Bairnsfather and Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers with fostering the partnership.

Shapira said that after the massacre, the two communal figures spoke about the Holocaust Center and Tree of Life creating “something that was much bigger than both of those organizations.”

“Then it began to develop, and it became much, much, bigger than even anybody would have thought of at the time,” she said.

Bairnsfather helped bring in Daniel Libeskind as an architect to create a new national institution, museum, educational center and memorial. Studio Libeskind’s involvement with Tree of Life commanded international attention, but Bairnsfather also created a bond with Chatham University, Shapira said.

The Holocaust Center benefits from its relationship with the university and the many academics there, she added.

For the past eight years, Bairnsfather has used her position, and background as a historian, to build relationships with organizations, artists and educators, Shapiro said.

“There is something about her that is no frills,” she added. “It's just passion and intelligence and kindness in her collaborations that make people want to work with her.”

Bairnsfather did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Her Feb. 16 announcement, which was sent via email and shared on the Holocaust Center’s social media channels, indicated that Bairnsfather will conclude her tenure on Feb. 28.

“I am looking forward to new opportunities to bring history to life and to illuminate the lessons of our past to inform our future actions,” she wrote. “As part of that effort, I am writing a book exploring Jewish identity, racism, and antisemitism.”

Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the new Tree of Life, said Bairnsfather remains a valued partner and friend as the new nonprofit continues its “REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW.” campaign to end antisemitism.

“I know she's always on the other side of the phone,” she said.

Zawatsky acknowledged there’s concern about the Holocaust Center’s future following the departure of its executive director.

“The Holocaust Center is beautifully poised for its next chapter with its strong staff, and we will continue to work together moving forward,” she said.

Shapira agreed and said the Holocaust Center will “absolutely not disappear.”

“We will remain the Holocaust Center,” she said. “We will have our advisory board. We will have a chair of the organization. We will continue to do our commemorative programs, create exhibitions, do our educational outreach with the LIGHT program and try to become a really stellar pillar in educating kindergartners through 12th graders.”

Shapira said the Holocaust Center has not yet determined whether it will hire a new person to join its team.

“At the moment, we are going to just do business as usual, and we will fill in,” she said. “We have every intention of keeping the Holocaust Center strong and vibrant. We have the staff right now to do that, and the help with being under the larger Tree of Life organizations that have additional resources.”

“There should be a lot of gratitude toward Lauren for getting us to this point,” she added, “but we have a long way to go.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more: