Small and Mighty: Reflections on a Tiny Team Moving the Needle

A visitor to the plaza photographs the Rapoport memorial. The space is envisioned as a site for moments of reflection. Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.
September 28, 2021

Sophie Don has been the Administrative and Operations Manager for the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation since completing her MA in Public Humanities at Brown in 2020. She has a personal passion for the mission of PHRF, as her grandparents and other family members are survivors and were involved in the 1964 memorial effort. You can reach Sophie Don at [email protected]org.

When I graduated from the Public Humanities MA program in May 2020 it was during a time when protests were widespread across the country, and we were about three months into the pandemic. Needless to say, it was challenging to focus on applying for jobs and finding ones that felt meaningful. I was fortunate have found a position in October 2020 as the Administrative and Operations Manager for the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. Reflecting on nearly a year in this position I cannot stress how strikingly in line with my degree, my interests, and my identity this opportunity has proven to be. In this post, I will share my reflections on being a member of a two-person staff, overseeing a foundation and public monument, as well as a participant in our expanding mission to educate, not just on the lessons of the Holocaust, but about white supremacy more broadly.

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Aerial view of the redesigned Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza, which expanded the original Plaza and monument to include educational features and artifacts. It was opened in October 2018. Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation. 

For a little background: my paternal grandparents were both survivors of the Holocaust, having endured ghettos, multiple concentration camps (including Auschwitz), and death marches. They met after liberation in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany and then immigrated to Philadelphia, where my grandmother’s surviving family had settled. My grandparents were part of the group of survivors who petitioned the City of Philadelphia to support the first Holocaust memorial in the country. It was designed and sculpted by a fellow survivor, Nathan Rapoport (1911-1987) and was installed in 1964. The Holocaust Memorial Plaza was then expanded in 2018 to include educational features such as artifacts, didactics and digital engagement. I now work for the Foundation that maintains, operates, and programs the Memorial Plaza.

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Nathan Rapoport with his Monument to 6 Million Jewish Martyrs, installed in Philadelphia in 1964. 
Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.

As there are only two of us on staff, my work has required a crash course in all aspects of humanities non-profit work. The Executive Director and I handle every part of operations and management. We are the HR department, finance, programs, education, donor relations, communications, web development… you name it. Because I have a role in all parts of the organization I have a hand in shaping our trajectory and mission. One of our accomplishments to date that I am so proud of is that we created an initiative to broaden our mission to not only teach the lessons of the Holocaust but to address their relevance to today. 

While antisemitism persists in our world, it is a terrible omission to not address that the white supremacy that was the ideological basis for the Nazis and led to the Holocaust also targeted Black Germans, queer men and women, people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti persons, and essentially anyone else who was not perceived as an acceptable member of the Germanic “race.” As we operate this non-profit, whose mission is to educate and remember, it is imperative that we address the ideological foundations that both have kept antisemitism alive and have served to perpetuate harm against so many others, particularly persons of color. We must also hold in mind that white Jewish people in the United States, including myself, have benefited significantly from white privilege. It is for these reasons that we must shift Holocaust education as a way to demonstrate how the lessons of that genocide should not remain isolated in history, seen only as a tragedy that European Jews experienced alone. For example, when teaching about WWII, what are the connections between white supremacy in Nazi Germany and in the United States under Jim Crow? How was propaganda utilized by the Nazis and by the United States in the portrayal of enemies during the War? And—perhaps most importantly— how do we make all of this relevant to today, knowing that indeed this is true. 

Because we are such a small institution we function with a minimum amount of bureaucracy; decisions can thus be made thoughtfully but quickly. In addition to our motivation, we also have a supportive board that wholeheartedly approves of this pedagogical shift. 

So how are we attempting to do this: 

  • As the finance and education departments, we can remove barriers to our resources and create access points for the public and schools to use our space and our educational resources for free, offering financial assistance when applicable.
  • As the programming department we can create public and school programs that reach across time so that they include through-lines to present day racial inequity and institutionalized racism. This means including in our curriculum the Diary of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel‘s Night, along with contemporary books like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson or How to be Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. We can host inclusive public programs that involve students who are not solely from private Jewish schools or the Jewish students from public schools. We can engage students with diverse backgrounds, along with elected officials in our city and state, and create programs that address other genocides and state-supported violence against historically marginalized groups of people. 
  • As board engagement and donor relations we can continue to diversify our board and donor base and then reflect that diversity of experience and identity in our programs and resources. 
  • As a member of HR we can also create programs to diversify our own institutional perspective. Because there are only two of us and we are both white Jewish women, we have our own set of experiences and understanding about this history. It benefits us, our work, and our audience to learn from other experts with varied expertise. For that reason, we are piloting the Scholar in Residence program to employ a graduate student each semester.

As the grandchild of survivors, I am grateful to have this role as part of my family legacy. It means a lot that my grandmother, now ninety-two, feels confident that her story will not be forgotten. As someone trained at the Center to do public-facing work, I am so happy to have found this role and to be able to explore all these aspects of nonprofit foundation work. And I am proud to have the space and support to explore and learn how to address the Foundation’s mission, in line with the goals of its founders like my grandparents, but also to update it to make it relevant and inclusive to a broader public.

I would be thrilled to talk about this work and receive your thoughts and ideas: once a public human, always a public human.

Alumni Project