Jeanette Parmigiani admits that people often look a little confused when hearing her name and learning that she is the director of Holocaust programs at the Baltimore Jewish Council.
But since taking over that job in July of 2007, Parmigiani, who describes herself as a “cradle Catholic,” has earned the respect and admiration of colleagues, educators, students, Holocaust survivors and their families for her commitment to local community programming and education about the Shoah.
A longtime Howard County resident and congregant at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, Parmigiani, 76, will retire from her position but remain on the BJC’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission. She plans to spend more time with her husband, John, six children and nine grandchildren, while handing over the reins of her job to Emily Braverman Goodman, who will become the BJC’s director of Holocaust and Anti-Semitism Programming.
Jmore recently spoke to Parmigiani about her work at the BJC and retirement, which officially takes effect on Dec. 11.
Jmore: How did you fall into this line of work?
Parmigiani: Well, after having and raising six children, I started taking classes at Howard Community College and then UMBC. I was a history major and my senior theses choices were [classes on] the Civil War and the Holocaust. I couldn’t get into [the Civil War classes], so I took the Holocaust. I knew a little bit about it, and as a Catholic I felt that the Church was one of the good guys [during the Holocaust]. As I began my research and delved into the Church’s history of anti-Judaism, I was outraged, discouraged and ashamed of the Catholic Church.
So I learned a lot by taking three classes at UMBC, the third of which was with [Rabbi Dr.] Moshe Shuali [Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s longtime ritual director]. He made us keep a diary and brought in different [Holocaust] survivors. That was in the spring of ’92. Then, I felt someone needed to stand up in church and talk about all of this. I asked [the late Baltimore Bishop] Frank Murphy, ‘Does the Church have a mandate for Holocaust programs?’ and he said, ‘You should start that.’ So I started a Yom HaShoah commemoration at my church that’s been running for 26 years.
But how did you wind up at the BJC?
One thing led to another and I wound up at an Association of Holocaust Organizations (AHO) conference and met [former BJC director of Holocaust programs] Marsha Tishler and [Holocaust educator] Nancy Civin. We decided to do some teacher training workshops [about the Holocaust]. We worked together for years until Marsha retired. In 2006, I was asked to be a co-chair of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission, the first non-Jewish co-chair. I was thrilled. I loved it. In 2007, [former BJC executive director] Art Abramson asked me to take over [the Holocaust programming director post] when Debbie Caplan left the BJC. Also during that time, I was privileged to attend two conferences at Yad Vashem [Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial].
I never expected to do it for so long. In 2008, The Associated partnered us with the Jewish Museum [of Maryland] on Holocaust education. Meanwhile, we worked on the annual commemorations of Yom HaShoah and Kristallnacht. Everything was exciting and interesting. Art hired me and [current BJC executive director] Howard [Libit] kept me on.
And you found that you loved the work?
Yes. It was such a blessing. The fact that I was entrusted with this work was astounding to me. I’d come home and could hardly wait to go back to work the next day. I just felt this passion and mission, like I had to do something. I’d found my niche.
I’ve always felt an affinity and great admiration for the Jewish people. I’m a cradle Catholic, but I feel that Judaism is a beautiful religion.
What are you most proud of during your tenure with the BJC?
Marsha Tishler and I created a student program for eighth graders from Catholic and Jewish schools, ‘We Will Remember: An Interfaith Study after the Shoah.’ The students with their teachers met together six or seven times a year, visiting each other’s synagogues or churches, hearing presentations by priests and rabbis. We visited the [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.] and the Basilica [of the Assumption in Baltimore] and Cardinal [William] Keeler’s residence.
At different sessions, the Catholic students talked about Catholicism and the Jewish students talked about Judaism. These students would never have had that interchange without this program. They also heard survivors’ testimonies. The program has evolved into a one-day programs, ‘Lessons of the Shoah,’ for high school students and their teachers from public, private and religious schools. Hosted by the John Carroll School in Bel Air, it is a day of Holocaust study and dialogue. Our goal is to teach the students to be ‘upstanders.’ The opposite of a bystander, an upstander stands up, speaks out against injustice. So that’s my pride and joy.
What’s it been like getting to know so many Holocaust survivors over the years?
I am amazed how the survivors are able to talk about the tragedies they and their families went through during the Shoah. They do it because they want future generations to know about what happened. Now, we have members of the second and third generations coming up and keeping the stories going.
I remember taking [Holocaust survivor] Bertha Schwartz to Francis Scott Key [Elementary/Middle School in Locust Point] and she spoke to the kids there, and one little girl came up and said, ‘I wish you were my grandmother.’ Another time at Mercy [High School], [survivor] Bluma Shapiro spoke to a sea of red uniforms. Afterward, one girl kept talking to Mrs. Shapiro for about 20 minutes while all the other students had gone off to their next classes. The teachers said this student was somewhat of a troublemaker, but she kept talking on and on to Bluma. It’s just incredible to see how students are so moved by these survivors.
I’ve just met some amazing people during this time and made some wonderful friends. They’ve become almost like family to me.
So why retire now?
It’s very hard and bittersweet. I was recently called in for an exit interview at The Associated and felt, ‘Wow, this is real.’ The responsibility and stress of the programs, it’s time to stop. At my age, it just seems right. I just want to settle down and not have a deadline.
I only wish I would’ve started 10 or 15 years earlier. But I hope to be a volunteer as long as Emily wants me to.
How do you view your legacy at the BJC?
I’m just so happy and honored, and I’ve had such wonderful volunteers. So many people have helped me over the years — Martha Weiman, Vera Kestenberg, Rachel Glaser, Sheryl Baum, Randy Gartner, Ilene Dackman-Alon, Margie Simon, Bob Lowy, Heller Kreshtool, Fay Kaufman, BJC staff members and so many others. All the programs are a team effort. What I’ve been able to accomplish I’ve only been able to do with their help.