Jewish Federation marks decade of Staenberg family philanthropy

The Staenberg Family: From left, Joel and Rachael Brightfield and Carol, Leah, Hannah and Michael Staenberg.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

This year, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis will celebrate a decade of innovative giving by the Staenberg Family Foundation with an initiative that challenges others to make a difference and spread good works.

“I think it is great,” philanthropist and businessman Michael Staenberg said. “Ten years went by really quickly.” 

But it hasn’t gone by without effect. Since it became a supporting foundation of the Jewish Federation a decade ago, the institution that bears the Staenberg family name has donated about $70 million to more than 500 charitable initiatives in an effort to give tikkun olam a boost in St. Louis.

The milestone is being marked with a pair of programs by the Federation. The first is Staenberg Stories, a series of testimonials from 15 groups, which highlight good works done by the foundation and the impact it has had on each organization.

Mindee Fredman, director of foundations for the Jewish Federation, said the Staenberg family does far more than simply give money. Carol and Michael Staenberg often will involve themselves in everything from sitting on boards to making direct connections with recipients, she said. In fact, Fredman estimates that organizations have garnered an additional $15 million simply from pro bono services or cost-saving measures facilitated by the foundation.

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“They don’t just write the check and walk away,” Fredman said. “When they get excited and connected to an organization, they really connect to the mission and the vision, and they get involved.”

But the Federation doesn’t hope to talk only about Staenberg’s previous successes. It also wants to inspire the creation of new ones. That’s the idea behind the 10 Gifts Challenge, which Fredman said was modeled on the Ice Bucket Challenge that proved so successful in raising money for ALS research. 

The idea is that participants select a charitable activity, follow through with their commitments and then share the results on social media while challenging 10 friends to do their own projects. Though donations are one option, the project need not involve money. Giving time, mentoring others or engaging in similar initiatives are good ways to contribute as well. She hopes the effort becomes viral.

“This could be so big if we continue to challenge people and take this challenge ourselves,” Fredman said.

That’s been a longstanding ethos behind the foundation’s efforts, which are as much about inspiring others to become active as they are about direct support from the Staenberg family. Often those initiatives need not be grandiose. The foundation’s Anything Grants have specialized in giving small amounts of money to fund ideas.

“You don’t have to give big dollars to make a difference,” Michael Staenberg said. “Give your time. Give some money. Give your brainpower.”

Recipients of the foundation’s largesse say that its efforts are appreciated. Among those being profiled as a “Staenberg Story” is the Sheldon Arts Foundation, where Staenberg has served as a board member since 1999. The family has given a quarter of a million dollars since then to help buoy educational programs, sponsor concerts and pay for upkeep of the Sheldon Concert Hall facilities.

High-caliber artists from Wynton Marsalis to B.B. King to Arlo Guthrie have been lured to town for shows because of support from the Staenbergs, and more than 25,000 young people have taken advantage of the learning opportunities the institution provides. 

“He and Carol have a set of values that are exemplary, and I think the foundation is a great example to others. I’m pretty sure it has inspired other families to think long term about giving to things they believe in across the community,” said Paul Reuter, executive director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation. “[The Staenberg Family Foundation] sets an example for families to support things that are important for them and that make St. Louis a better place for all of us.”

Forest Park Forever has been another recipient of the Staenbergs’ generosity, having been involved with the couple for more than 15 years.

“Their remarkable gifts have been essential to Forest Park becoming an urban park of national renown and one of the most beloved civic treasures in the region,” wrote Lesley S. Hoffarth, president and executive director of the group in an email released to the Jewish Light. “As leaders in the philanthropic community, Michael and Carol have also inspired others to support Forest Park Forever’s mission over the years.” 

The Holocaust Museum and Learning Center also has gotten an assist from the foundation, which has funded an educational trunk program allowing teachers to use literature, films and lesson plans to help teach about the Shoah, often in districts far from easy travel to the museum.

“We estimate, since we started this program, an additional 20,000 student have received quality Holocaust education in school districts in Missouri such as Greenville, Washington, Palmyra, Bonne Terre, and in Nashville, Ill.,” reads the museum’s Staenberg Story on the Federation’s website.

Marshall Cohen said the Staenbergs have been invaluable to St. Louis.

“No matter what your charity or organization, they are always willing to at least listen to you, which is an important thing,” said Cohen, executive director of Lift for Life Academy, a charter school that branched out from a nonprofit gym that Cohen started in 1998 to help at-risk youth. “They understand that just making a commitment in the community is an important thing.”

He recalled the first time he spoke to Michael Staenberg, who phoned him when the two didn’t even know each other. Cohen said Staenberg surprised him by simply asking what he needed.

“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll give you X amount of money if you can raise this amount,’ ” Cohen said. “I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, who is this guy?’ ”

Cohen said Staenberg has been generous in offering not just donations but also services and advice.

“If it weren’t for him and some other generous folks in St. Louis, we wouldn’t really be in a position to do what we want to do,” he said.

Cohen said Staenberg’s vision helps not just the Jewish community, but the city as a whole.

“Some folks are really tied to a set reason for giving, which is understandable, but I think that when you have this broader picture in mind and you are able to get involved in the community, I think that goes a long way,” he said.

Fredman said she hopes that the 10 Gifts Challenge will help promote knowledge of what the Staenbergs have accomplished.

“In the Jewish community, we’re all aware of the [family] name, but I don’t know if people are aware of how much they’ve done for our entire St. Louis region,” she said.

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