Holocaust Center moves to Oakland as staff, board plan for its future

Holocaust Center moves to Oakland as staff, board plan for its future

The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is returning to its roots  — at least, temporarily.

The center’s board of trustees voted unanimously, Wednesday, March 28, to move from the Robinson Building of the Jewish Community Center — its home for the past 15 years — back to a vacant federation-owned facility at 242 McKee Place, Oakland, where it was first located in 1982. The center is marking its 30th anniversary this year.

The move is effective July 1 — one day after its lease with the JCC expires.

“It’s kind of poignant that 242 McKee is the place where we started from,” said Holocaust Center Director Joy Braunstein.

But there’s a reason for the move, too. The center is beginning an evaluation period to determine what kind of institution it will be in the future as the population of Holocaust survivors continues to decline. Will it be a museum, a programming center, or will it take on a new direction altogether?

How the center defines its mission going forward will determine what kind of permanent space it needs, Braunstein said.

“I equated this to children who graduate from college and they don’t know what to do next, so they move into their parents’ basement,” she said. “We have to figure out what we can do to make the maximum impact on the community.”

The board will invest most of the $3,300 per month it currently spends in rent for programming to benefit the Jewish community, though Braunstein stressed the decision to move was not made for financial reasons.

“We have been considering for a long time how to increase the reach of our programs,” David Sufrin, chair of the center’s board of trustees, said in a prepared statement. “We realized that we have an opportunity with our lease ending June 30, and the space becoming available that is owned by the federation, to take advantage of timing and do something now.

“That said,” Sufrin added, “we value our partnership with the JCC and the American Jewish Museum, and look forward to continuing that partnership around the very important community programming we provide in years to come.”

JCC Executive Director Brian Schreiber said the Holocaust Center’s decision to move wouldn’t affect the JCC’s relationship with it.

“It’s their decision, so we’ll support that,” Schreiber said. “We’ll continue to partner with the Holocaust Center regardless of what space they’re in.”

He said the JCC has no plans for the Robinson space at this time.

For several years now, the Holocaust Center’s space at the Robinson Building had not been used for public programming.

“That space was ideal for the programs and the community’s needs 15 years ago,” Braunstein said. “We don’t program at all in that space now, and we have to grapple with what the center looks like without an active survivor community.”

She said the McKee Place space, a converted house next door to the federation building, is meant to be an internal working space and will not open to public functions.

Prior to last week’s announcement that there had been rumors that the center would move to the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob synagogue, Downtown. Indeed, Braunstein said, such a move had been considered.

“When I was hired there was an idea that the Downtown synagogue would make a lot of sense, attract a broad-based audience and build out permanent exhibits.”

Since then, she said the board has decided to explore all options. “We have to evaluate every spectrum of opportunity before we commit to something like that.”

Until a permanent site for the center is chosen, its artifacts and exhibits, some of which are currently on display at the JCC, will go into storage.

But the move won’t affect the center’s programming, Braunstein said. The Yom Hashoa program will be held Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m., at the JCC as always.

In addition, newer, broader community activities are in the works. For instance, the center is working with the August Wilson Center, Downtown, to present an exhibition this October on the 1936 Summer Olympics, known as the “Nazi Olympics” because they were held in Berlin and meant to showcase Nazi ideology.

“We’ll do the programming in the space where it makes the most sense,” Braunstein said.

She expects some type of plan for the future of the Holocaust Center to be worked out by the end of the summer. After that, it can begin looking for sites for its permanent home.

There is a chance, she noted, that the home could again be in Squirrel Hill.

The decision to move, Braunstein added, was made with the survivors’ views taken into consideration.

“Our governing board includes a significant number of Holocaust survivors, and the board voted unanimously,” she said. “In fact, it was a Holocaust survivor who put the motion on the table. So we’re operating within the context of what the survivor community has viewed appropriate.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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