Holocaust Center honors the Righteous Among the Neighbors
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Honoring the helpersAward ceremony takes place Jan. 17

Holocaust Center honors the Righteous Among the Neighbors

Schoen said it’s important that non-Jews stand alongside the Jewish community.

Noah Schoen believes that it is important to highlight the work of non-Jews fighting antisemitism.

Schoen is the community outreach associate with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the co-creator of the Meanings of October 27th Oral History Project, housed at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

One of the things he learned while collecting stories for the project, Schoen said, is that many Pittsburghers care about antisemitism.

“I believe that to dismantle antisemitism, we need the help of non-Jews,” Schoen said. “And we need to make visible the work that those non-Jews are doing.”

It was while thinking of the Righteous Among the Nations — an honor created by Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from being exterminated in the Holocaust — that Schoen thought about highlighting the work of two dozen non-Jewish community members in Pittsburgh.

Taking a cue from Israel’s program, he called the idea “Righteous Among the Neighbors.”

Schoen credits Nick Haberman from the LIGHT Education Initiative with the next part of the project: having high school students write articles about the nominees, and to have some of those stories published by the Pittsburgh City Paper.

“Nick believes in young people,” Schoen said. “He said, ‘How can students help?’ He went to Dawn [Davenport], who teaches journalism at Mt. Lebanon, who said ‘yes.’”

Haberman said that he and Schoen often have conversations about dismantling antisemitism.

“One of the ideas [Schoen] brought to this region is that it’s important for Jews to believe that antisemitism can end, and if they see examples of non-Jews stepping up to help dismantle antisemitism, then it creates a positive feedback loop,” Haberman said.

Schoen’s concept, Haberman said, was to celebrate people who stepped up in the aftermath of Oct. 27 and to share some of the lesser-known stories.

Davenport, a Mt. Lebanon High School English and journalism teacher and adviser to the school’s newspaper The Devil’s Advocate, said the experience was great.

“I feel like my students were really well prepared to do this,” she said.

Davenport, who is also an honoree, said that writing about something other than the latest high school basketball game or play was a different experience for the students.

“I think the hardest part was realizing they were interviewing real people with real-life stories that mattered,” she said. “They were writing about somebody that really impacted the whole world and wanted to do it right. They were nervous about it, for sure.”

The students need not have been nervous, according to those they interviewed.

Shawn Brokos, the security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and one of the 24 people honored, said the story written about her by Sawyer Klasnick was “amazing.”

“He managed to capture all of the key points,” she said. “I read it and thought, ‘Was this really written by a high school student?’ I even emailed him and said, ‘I hope you’re considering a future career writing in some capacity,’ because it was so well done.”

Brokos said she was overwhelmed with gratitude when she learned that she was an honoree.

“It’s very meaningful to be thought of in that capacity,” she said.

The security director is among several honorees familiar to many in the Jewish community, but others are less well-known.
“Most people know Laura Ellsworth and Mark Nordenberg,” Schoen said, referencing the creators of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit, “but how many people know about Sister Gemma Del Duca? How many people know about Mark Pudlowski?”

Pudlowski used his own money to restore a Jewish cemetery on Rippel Road in White Oak, while Del Duca founded the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University.

Megan Tuñón is another name that might be unfamiliar to some. Tuñón is the vice president of the Etna Borough Municipal Council and the founder of the Etna Community organization. In January 2022, she organized a yard sign campaign in response to a resident who displayed a swastika flag outside of his home. She also brought together various communal elements, including residents, politicians and organizations, for a Zoom conversation about inclusivity.

Tuñón hopes the award will inspire others to respond to hate in their communities.

The award, she said, is “icing on the cake,” for a communal group effort of which she is the spokesperson.

Tuñón was impressed with Madeline Zerega, the student who interviewed her.

“She just seemed so mature,” Tuñón said. “She asked really insightful questions. It was easy to talk to her. She was great. I emailed her after the article came out and told her what a wonderful job she did.”

Other honorees include Emmai Alaquiva, Rev. Liddy Barlow, Megan Cook, Catlyn Dipasquale and Kimberly Piekarski, Meg Frank, Natalie Hall, Marian Lien, Angelica Miskanin, Lulu Orr, Daniel Shaner, Julianne Slogick and Dawn Davenport, Tim Smith, Khara Timsina and Scott Vensel.

Wasi Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — which offered support to the Jewish community after the attack — was also honored. He now serves as Rep. Summer Lee’s chief of staff. Mohamed did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for an interview.

Also honored was Jasiri X, the founder of 1HoodMedia. The civil rights activist was a member of the Nation of Islam and, in 2014, visited the Palestinian territories and recorded the song “Checkpoint” about what he saw as the harassment of the Palestinian people at military checkpoints.

His views have evolved, he said.

He is no longer involved with the Nation of Islam. As for “Checkpoint,” he said he wrote the song based on what he saw during his time in the Palestinian territories, and that his point of view had come from a “Black civil rights lens.” At the time, he didn’t see the situation from the perspective of Jews who had experienced violence, were traumatized and were forced to leave their homelands.

Jasiri X said he’s still learning some of the history of the Jewish people and the impact of certain language. He didn’t understand what “From the river to the sea” meant to the Jewish community, for example, until a woman explained it to him.

Following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Jasiri X began working with the Jewish community to fight antisemitism. He appeared on a panel organized by former Pittsburgh Steeler Zach Banner to talk about hate and hosted interfaith seders on both Passover and Ramadan.

“Ultimately, we want peace and unity and love,” he said. “How do we get there?”

He called being named one of the Righteous Among the Neighbors “an honor.”

“Jasiri has really modeled what it means to be a learner on the issue of antisemitism,” Schoen said. “He consistently seeks out more information, listens with curiosity to Jewish people’s experiences, and shares what he learns with others from his platform as a respected local leader.”

Haberman hopes people see how easy it is to make a “positive impact in your community.”

“It’s sometimes difficult to make the right choice, but we’re trying to show there are a lot of people who made that difficult choice at a time when the city was in a tremendous amount of pain and what that led to in different communities and classrooms and churches and mosques. It’s led to hope,” he said.

Schoen said it’s important that non-Jews stand alongside the Jewish community.

“This is our way of honoring people who are helping, showing gratitude for that and inviting others to act in their image,” he said.

More information about the honorees, as well as the stories written by Mt. Lebanon High School students and photos by Brian Cohen, can be found on the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s website.

A ceremony honoring the Righteous Among the Neighbors will take place on Jan. 17 at the South Hills Jewish Community Center.PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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