On March 31, the Staten Island Advance announced that Wagner College history professor Lori Weintrob, founding director of the college's Holocaust Center, was one of six women being named 2019 Women of Achievement, a distinction dating back to 1962. Long-time Advance columnist Carol Ann Benanti wrote this profile of Professor Weintrob.
In a world where cultural awareness and diversity are encouraged through understanding, learning and good example, Dr. Lori Weintrob builds bridges and creates spaces for multicultural ethnicities and religions on Staten Island — and beyond.
The community leader, a professor of history at Wagner College, has devoted her life to fighting prejudices and creating a better community.
“The number one thing I’m committed to is to use my heart, my hands and my mind to open other hearts, hands, and minds and to celebrate diversity and not just tolerate it,” says Lori.
Lori’s interest in diversity was piqued early on, when as a young adult she spent two years studying in France, first in college and than doing research for a history dissertation.
“When you live in other countries you observe people have different values and it helps you grow as a person,” said the Westerleigh resident, before adding: “You see other cultures and you learn to value and prioritize.”
Lori’s grandfathers were immigrants — her mom’s dad from Poland and her dad’s dad from the Ukraine. They were both persecuted and came to America for a better life.
“Each person’s story is like a treasure because you learn so much about politics, their countries, history, arts and music,” she says.
Lori grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, relocated to Brooklyn and graduated from Stuyvesant High School, where she was yearbook editor. She also was president of the United Synagogue Youth Group at her temple.
“My mom was president of the PTA and my dad headed our synagogue, so I came from a family of volunteers. I learned early on the value of giving. When I ran for president of my kindergarten class my grandmother suggested the words ‘I’m good and kind,’ would be a great slogan.”
In speaking of her college education at Princeton where the motto is: “In the service of the nation and all nations,” Lori found service and the need to give back.
Then at UCLA, where she was a ‘Big Sister,’ her passion to mentor people and work to make the world a better place became more powerful.
“In Judaism there’s a concept called ‘Tikkum Olam’ which means ‘repairing the world,’ and I believe in this amazing principle. It unites all faiths to make the world better,” she said.
Lori studied the Holocaust at Princeton, and at UCLA she met a Holocaust survivor. “He opened up to me about how it happened and that it could be shown — not so much how you can understand it — but how you can explain it.”
Lori teaches different phases of the Holocaust. She asks, “Why would the Nazi’s prevent a young girl from watching Shirley Temple and why wasn’t there more resistance? It was clearly unfair and inhumane.”
SETTLES ON STATEN ISLAND
Lori’s love affair with Staten Island began when she relocated in August 1995 and quickly immersed herself into community life.
“It’s a love story and I became a cheerleader. Staten Island is a community of all communities, she says.”
Before long, she became involved with the Liberian refugee community in Park Hill.
“At Wagner they were doing volunteer projects and I thought, “How can Wagner serve the borough through civic engagement in Park Hill? Along with faculty at Wagner, PS 57 students were inspired by college students and connected to their African heritage. We did this for five years. The project worked wonders. The principal said third graders’ scores improved significantly. The impact was amazing,” she noted.
Lori, who has always been moved by people going through struggles, war and trauma, founded the Holocaust Center at Wagner College as a means to help generations understand the importance of this integral part of history and to celebrate the courage of survivors. The concept is meant to “inspire, and to show courage and empathy.”
“Individual survivors inspire. Every day I think how can I do justice to telling their stories — so it doesn’t happen again? It’s a passion and it’s a responsibility,” says she.
Five years ago Staten Island was the only borough and one of the only counties in New York and New Jersey without a Holocaust Center.
“Since then, we’ve connected local Holocaust survivors to over 3,500 young people on Staten Island to transmit the importance of remembering the past in order to promote empathy, courage and ethical action,” she told us.
Its mission? To awaken future generations to the consequences of prejudice, anti-Semitism, racism and the dynamism of Jewish culture.
The Holocaust Center was founded and funded by the Chai Society of Wagner College and chaired by Dr. Victor and Kim Avis. The society enabled its launch and a number of board members have made invaluable suggestions and offered support.
The Center worked with the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center to help promote knowledge of Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews. “This model of interfaith tolerance and humanity is critical in our world,” Lori adds.
On school programs she says: “They are inspired to see the world differently and stand up more strongly against prejudice,” in the words of Wagner college student and Holocaust Center intern Jazmine Minner. Wagner College student interns offer lessons to prepare students to meet survivors — Jewish, as well as other Nazi victims, particularly those with disabilities, Afro-Germans and homosexuals.
Lori’s vision? To have a network of Staten Island teachers meet to discuss practices to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.
“We will have a signature bi-annual conference, where we look at unique aspects, and a community of all faiths coming to the Holocaust exhibits at the Center at Wagner College,” says she.
10 YEAR GOAL?
The Holocaust Center will empower and partner with organizations on Staten Island to promote the use of testimony in local history of not only the Holocaust but civil rights, LGBT rights and immigration history. And to be a national model to create a “Borough of Kindness” in a “World of Empathy and Courage” — a think tank using energy of teachers, community and business leaders and youth.
In speaking of Lori, Dr. Victor Avis says: “She’s a dynamic person. Her energy and commitment in giving the Holocaust survivors a voice in ways we will never know, helped them tell their story in their later years.
“It also benefits Staten Island kids and adults to learn first-hand about the Holocaust and it will have an impact and give them understanding to not be silent going forth. Lori’s work is very timely. She realizes this opportunity will never happen again.”
LORI’S PERSONAL LIFE
Phil Papas is her partner of 10 years, a teacher of American history at Union County College in Cranford, N.J.
“Relationships are all about the value of openness — openness and empathy — very important values,” she says.
Together, they have two girls, Joelle Parness, 18, an aspiring actress and a student at LaGuardia High School, and Sophia Papas, 8.
In the days that followed Sept. 11, 2001, Lori was one of the first to create Muslim/ Jewish community dialogue with Imam Tahir Kukaj of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center and Rabbi David Katz at Wagner College.
“I’ve been in five out of seven mosques,’ Lori says. “This month we’re having a dialogue on Muslims, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. I’ve had students tell me there’s going to be an explosion and they said the same thing about Park Hill. I think it’s important to challenge yourself and others and be open to neighbors and changes.”
To help people stand up and fight prejudice and build a better community, one of the biggest lessons of the Holocaust, and to spread these values of not turning the other way.
“Let’s make this special borough one of kindness, empathy and courage — instead of just the forgotten borough.”
On Lori’s lawn there’s a sign that reads: “Hate has no home here,” written in six languages.
Shira Stoll, an Advance multimedia journalist, has become a good friend.
“Lori was amazing when we met at Cafe Europa, a Holocaust survivor event in June 2017,” Shira said. “I really wanted to interview the Holocaust survivors as a project. We talked about my idea and exchanged information. I interviewed 15 of them and she helped me connect to survivors and check facts. That sparked our friendship and she became my mentor not just about the Holocaust but everything. We’ve been visiting Holocaust survivors together and they developed a bond with us.”
Lori points out that on April 17 at 10 a.m. in the St. George Theatre more than 1,000 audience members will watch a performance by college students about six Staten Islanders who survived the Holocaust, with songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The program titled “Rise Up” teaches how to resist hate.