Obituary: Henry 'Hank' Karp / Leader at Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh

Dec. 23, 1954 - Aug. 18, 2013

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As a boy, Henry "Hank" Karp made sure to befriend a fellow student with disabilities, the boy or girl whom some other children called "the weird kid in class."

As a man, Mr. Karp dedicated his life to sticking up for people who needed a friend and ally, whether it was helping Jews escape a disintegrating Soviet Union or seeking out the party guest in the corner who wasn't joining the common conversation, said Mr. Karp's wife of 25 years, Simone.

"He was always so driven to help people who needed help, even if it meant going against the system," said Mrs. Karp, of Mt. Lebanon. "He didn't care about being a conformist -- he wanted to make sure people who needed a voice had a voice. That was him."

Mr. Karp, the longtime director of marketing communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, died Sunday after a three-year battle with brain cancer. He was 58.

Born Dec. 23, 1954, Mr. Karp grew up in Monroeville and graduated from Gateway High School in 1972.

After earning a bachelor's degree from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., in 1976, Mr. Karp -- inspired by the investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, his wife said -- went to work for the Beaver County Times. A photojournalist in college, Mr. Karp first worked as a reporter and later as features editor at the newspaper, where he helped launch the Allegheny Times in an effort to cover the new Pittsburgh International Airport and the fast-growing communities around it.

Mr. Karp's desire for fairness and justice translated into his oversight of the newspaper's coverage and into his dealings with the people who worked for him, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial page editor, Tom Waseleski.

"He was a careful and caring editor; he cared about his staff and about the people his reporters often wrote about," said Mr. Waseleski, who met Mr. Karp when they worked together at the Times in the 1980s.

By the early 1990s, Mr. Karp felt the need to help people more directly than his work as a journalist allowed and decided to join the Jewish Federation, where he worked for 23 years as marketing communications director, his wife said.

Mr. Karp soon found himself immersed in one of the most dramatic stories of his career, but as an advocate rather than a journalist. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Jews there faced renewed persecution and began fleeing to Israel.

In an effort to help them emigrate safely, Mr. Karp traveled to the newly reborn Russia as part of the federation's Project Exodus to escort Jews on their flights to Israel.

His trips between Russia and Israel, accompanying Jewish refugees, also afforded Mr. Karp a view of some of the most intimate and happiest moments of his life, as when the people on the plane with him entered Israeli airspace, realized they were safe, and began singing. Or when their feet touched the tarmac and they fell to their knees to kiss Israeli soil.

In Pittsburgh, he was central to the federation's fundraising efforts in the mid-1990s to rebuild the Jewish Association on Aging, the day schools of the Jewish parochial system, and Jewish Family & Children's Service, and to build a new Jewish Community Center in the South Hills, former co-worker Brian Schreiber said.

After 9/11 and other terrorist events, Mr. Karp also helped organize a rally that drew thousands of people in support of the Jewish community.

And he was considered a national leader in the Jewish communications and marketing community, said federation president and CEO Jeffrey Finkelstein.

Still, Mr. Karp viewed himself more as a team member than a leader, Mr. Finkelstein said.

"Hank was one of the people on the team -- that's where he was able to think about the greater good of the team and the organization and the greater Jewish community," Mr. Finkelstein said.

That ethos carried over to his family as well. Nothing took precedence over his family, especially his two daughters, Emily and Marissa, with whom he had a very close relationship, said Mr. Karp's friends and family.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Karp is survived by his mother, Rita; two brothers, Stuart and Robert; and a sister, Laura Flint.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. today at the Ralph Schugar Chapel on Centre Avenue in Shadyside with no visitation preceding. Interment will follow at Beth Shalom Cemetery. Donations may be made to the Henry and Simone Karp Foundation, with checks payable to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, 234 McKee Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or


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