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Photo by Brian Cohen

Profile by Sawyer Klasnick

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on three Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018, many people rushed to safety, far away from where the heinous act occurred.  Shawn Brokos, on the other hand, rushed into action at the scene of the crime and, as a result of this bravery, in addition to the countless hours she has devoted to protecting the Jewish community since that day, she has been selected as a Righteous Among the Neighbors recipient.

Before becoming the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Director of Community Security, Brokos worked as a federal law enforcement agent, overseeing crisis management for the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office.  It was this role that provided her with the opportunity to step up in a time of crisis.

While at a volunteer breakfast, Brokos was alerted of the tragedy at the three congregations.  Immediately, she lept into action.

“When I got the text from Allegheny County, I told my parents to make sure my daughter gets home. I need to go to work,” Brokos said. “So, I left and just went right to my FBI office. And when I got there, my boss said, ‘No, I need you on scene. You need to go to the scene.’ So I was there on scene, and we, the FBI, set up our command post, and within minutes, we knew that this was going to be a federal hate crime.”

While Brokos grew up as a Protestant, the hospitality and kind gestures from the Jewish community while on the scene inspired her to become more heavily involved in ensuring their safety.  The opportunities she has been granted as a result of her work have cemented her belief that it is rewarding to stand up for all people who are victims of discrimination.

“What we’ve seen continually in the Jewish community is that antisemitism grows along with hate targeting other minority groups,” Brokos said.  “It’s not just the Jewish community being targeted. We’ve seen during COVID, other groups such as the Asian community and the LGBTQ community being targeted as well.”

Despite making up just 2% of the population, almost 60% of all religious-based crimes are committed against Jews.  A large part of Brokos’s job is working to lower that number.

The trial of Robert Bowers, who was found guilty on all 63 charges for his role in the deadly attack, made the task more difficult.

“I think we have absolutely seen an uptick in hate speech in light of the ongoing trial,” Brokos said, “and to counter that, we are using a three-pronged approach which focuses on evaluating threats, helping others with their mental health and providing awareness of the hate that takes place. The whole goal is to be proactive. We want to be in front of this instead of reactive.”

Brokos also posts weekly security updates for Jewish Federation Greater Pittsburgh which are available online.

While her end goal of eliminating antisemitism and preventing all prejudice-based acts of violence will not be easy, Brokos believes if any city can do it, it’s Pittsburgh.

“I attended an event after the Tree of Life tragedy where the heads of every religious organization here in Pittsburgh were brought up on the stage and stood in solidarity with the faith based leaders of the Jewish community, but also the professional leaders in the Jewish community,” Brokos said. “We all stood together in solidarity and strength. And again, I think that togetherness is something that’s unique to Pittsburgh and a reason why we have been able to persevere through this terrible event.”

While Brokos, along with many others, were proud of the city’s response to the events on Oct. 27, 2018, she hopes that Pittsburghers never forget the unity it sparked.  Moving forward, Brokos encourages all Americans to continue to carry the principles they learned from that deplorable day into their everyday life.

“I think [the shooting is] something that has inextricably connected so many of us because, whether you’re Jewish or not, we were all impacted by that,” Brokos said.  “That day, and the days after, the Pittsburgh community was united and said that we, as a Pittsburgh community, are not going to tolerate it. Pittsburgh is no place for hate, and I love that message.”