The task to “Remember. Rebuild. Renew.” has a new point person in Pittsburgh.
Carole Zawatsky was named the CEO of the nonprofit Tree of Life.
Zawatsky takes the reigns of the organization created earlier this year. Its mission includes reimagining the building at the site of the worst antisemitic attack in United States history. It shares a name with one of three congregations housed in the building during the Oct. 27 massacre — which also targeted New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash — but is a separate entity.
The new building at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues will include a museum, memorial and center for education. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh also will be a part of the organization.
“This project, the Tree of Life reimagined, spoke to me in every single way possible, with every fiber of my being,” Zawatsky said. “It is, to me, the most deeply Jewish thing we can possibly do, which is, out of the worst adversity, create something new, teach hope and work to eradicate antisemitism.”
The new CEO, who has already moved to Pittsburgh, has spent more than three decades in leadership roles at Jewish institutions and is dedicated to the space of Jewish art, culture and ideas.
Born in Washington, D.C., but raised in suburban Maryland, Zawatsky earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland where she studied art history and a master’s from George Washington University.
She began her career at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, but it wasn’t long before she felt the pull for a deeper connection in her work.
“In a relatively short time, I came to understand that deep within my DNA was the need to do what I was doing in a Jewish space,” she explained.
Her first experience at a Jewish institution was at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles. At the time, it was located on the Hebrew Union College campus; it has since been renamed the Skirball Cultural Center and moved to Bel Air. The move allowed Zawatsky to work with Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.
The 1994 Northridge earthquake convinced Zawatsky that a change of coasts was in order.
“It was time to go back to terra firma where you woke up each morning and your windows are right where you left them,” she said.
She accepted a position working on public programs at the newly opened U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In the role, Zawatsky traveled the country with a broad array of individuals including survivors, rescuers, musicians and thinkers to bring programs highlighting lessons of genocide, human rights violations and the Holocaust.
Zawatsky next moved to New York and The Jewish Museum, where she served as the director of education for eight years before transitioning to the founding director at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, which looks at American Jewish history through the lens of northeast Ohio.
When she was offered the unusual title of associate director for Arts, Ideas and Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, she headed back west.
“Who wouldn’t want to be the director of ideas? That said, the institution has an absolutely incredible vision of truly bringing community together through arts, culture and very high-level ideas, symposia, conferences and speakers across a multitude of ideas around Jewish life and the secular world,” she said.
Zawatsky then moved east again to accept the role of CEO at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center. While there, she oversaw a capital campaign for a complete renovation to create what is now known as the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.
In what would be her final stop before accepting the CEO title at Tree of Life, Zawatsky served as the chief strategy and development advancement officer at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
“I was there about a year, and it was wonderful,” she said, “but the opportunity to be in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life, is something that for me, is an opportunity I am humbled and honored to be a part of.”
It might be tempting to believe that someone with Zawatsky’s experience would be anxious to impart her vision on a new organization; that, however, doesn’t seem to be how the new CEO views her role.
“My vision has to be aligned with the vision of the community,” she said. “There can never be any sort of error between my vision and the community’s vision. I’m here to ensure the communal vision happens in the best way possible.”
Zawatsky has a lot on her plate as Tree of Life’s inaugural leader, including working to eradicate antisemitism and helping memorialize and honor the victims of Oct. 27 and their families.
She’ll also be spending time meeting and getting to know as many community members as possible.
“And to educate everyone locally, nationally and internationally that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem. It’s everyone’s problem and when we work to eradicate antisemitism, we work to eradicate hate,” she said.
To that end, Zawatsky is anxious to partner with many of the other Jewish organizations operating in the city.
“We are all better when we come together and share what we are each best at,” she said. “So, as a new institution, there’s a wonderful opportunity to collaborate to be a part of a really robust Jewish community.”
Zawatsky was chosen at the end of a national search, explained Michael Bernstein, chair of Tree of Life’s interim governance committee. The organization, he said, employed a search firm that specialized in helping to find nonprofit executives. Their recommendations were vetted and interviewed by the nonprofit’s search committee, which eventually narrowed the candidates down to eight before choosing Zawatsky.
Bernstein said the organization’s immediate goals include ensuring there is a clear understanding of what they are developing and building and how that will translate into fundraising to ensure its support and long-term stability.
Another goal will be to develop a plan that enables the organization to be a national player of consequence in the fight against antisemitism.
“Carole, given her background in program development and history and, really, as an expert in this area, we believe, can help drive us there,” he said.
The organization will lean on Zawatsky’s experience to help build a team of lay volunteers and professional leaders, Bernstein said.
“We’re super excited and blessed and very fortunate to have a professional of her caliber join us,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.