Shay Pilnik believes Holocaust education chose him more than he chose the field.
In 2014, he was selected to serve as the executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Pilnik has been credited by many for growing the center into a more robust resource for the state.
After more than five years on the job, Pilnik has left HERC for a position in New York. He was selected as the founding director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Yeshiva University.
Pilnik said his transition out of Milwaukee is “bittersweet.”
“I realized that the job at Yeshiva University is really an opportunity to grow and to make an impact on a national level,” Pilnik said.
Pilnik, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, came to HERC after serving as an adjunct instructor at the Universities of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Oshkosh. He said Joel Berkowitz, a professor of foreign languages and literature at UW-Milwaukee, brought the opportunity to his attention.
Pilnik said he was transparent with the HERC search committee about the ways in which his experience did not meet the job description, such as his lack of exposure in fundraising. He said he is grateful the search committee chose him, because he considered himself an “unusual candidate” for the job.
Berkowitz, the director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies, said Pilnik has had a significant impact on Milwaukee and Wisconsin during his time leading the organization. He said he was excited when Pilnik took the job because of both his personality and his scholarly credentials.
Pilnik holds a doctoral degree in modern Jewish studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“He managed to bring a significant amount of expertise to the job and also navigated a complex network of relationships that you have to do in that job between the different aspects of the community and the education piece,” Berkowitz said. “(He) really took that position to another level.”
During his tenure, Pilnik said HERC identified untapped resources and funding, as well as opportunities for more outreach and programming revolving around the Holocaust.
Pilnik led the organization as it added programs like a live interview series with Holocaust survivors and a training workshop that prepares Wisconsin educators to teach the Holocaust. HERC also added a partnership with Jewish Museum Milwaukee to provide programming after tours. In addition, the center runs a study abroad trip for college students called We Bear Witness.
But none of those programs is what Pilnik identifies as his greatest achievement at HERC.
“I sense that I managed to bring the community at large to join the call — to harness the community for the call of Holocaust education,” Pilnik said. “When I started, there was a sense that Holocaust education was the concern primarily of Holocaust survivors and their families. But that’s no longer the case in Milwaukee, and it should not be the case.”
Jody Hirsh, the Judaic education director at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, indicated Pilnik’s exit is a substantial moment because of his work expanding HERC’s scope.
“His intelligence and the way he curated the programming that they’ve done with HERC, the way they created or expanded the educational programming that they’ve done for teachers in Wisconsin — helping them, giving them access to ways that they could teach the Holocaust — I think that was such a contribution that he made,” Hirsh said.
“Shay has been a visionary leader for us, growing HERC into an organization that’s ready for today’s complicated times,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the Federation. “As the CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and an alumna of Yeshiva University, I couldn’t be prouder of this between our communities. I’m looking forward to watching what Shay does with the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.”
Arleen Peltz, the chair of HERC’s board, said the organization would conduct a national search for Pilnik’s successor. Pilnik’s personality set him apart in 2014, and Peltz said a warm and welcoming demeanor is a priority for HERC’s next leader.
Under Pilnik’s direction, Peltz said HERC reached heights statewide the board didn’t anticipate. In 2019, HERC reached 28,000 students and adults.
“He was beyond anything that we had expected,” Peltz said. “We learned from each other, and I think the past chairs would say the same thing. He was the person that always wanted to improve himself and the organization.”
Pilnik said he has no doubt that with HERC’s lay leadership, board and next executive director, the organization will continue to grow.
“The ability to bring these particular lessons of history to the younger generation has an enormous power to repair our communities and to make sure that we will live in a better world,” Pilnik said. “The potential is enormous.”