Silk Foundation smooths way for many Jewish agencies

Photo: Bill Motchan
Silk Foundation Trustees Dr. Richard Kofkoff and Dr. Susan Godwin-Kofkoff are shown with Rabbi Jordan Gerson. Gerson is The Silk Foundation Campus Rabbi at Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis.

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Susan Godwin-Kofkoff remembers her uncle Martin Silk as a colorful, religious man, a collector of clocks and antiques who loved being Jewish. 

“He wanted to be able to give to people who were in need,” she said.

Today, the foundation that bears his name is doing just that. Established just after his death in 2006, the Martin Silk Foundation benefits a wide range of efforts in the Jewish community, from senior services to education to Holocaust remembrance.

“It’s been a blessing for us to have this opportunity to impact so many people around the community,” said Richard Kofkoff, Susan’s husband of 36 years. “It is definitely a win-win for the recipients as well as the donors.”

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The foundation supports the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and a variety of groups in the community.

“We are eternally grateful for the support of the Martin Silk Foundation,” said Jackie Levy of Washington University Hillel. “We couldn’t be as successful a Hillel as we are without their partnership and investment in us, our students and our community.”

The foundation has been helping the organization since 2009, committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campus rabbi position occupied at present by St. Louis native Rabbi Jordan Gerson. He oversees Shabbat and holiday programs, acts as an educational resource, and has also led about 360 participants on birthright trips to Israel since taking the job. 

Levy and Gerson said the position, which is named after the Silk Foundation, is integral to the work of Hillel.

Gerson said: “I’m just incredibly grateful to the Silk Foundation for giving me the opportunity to be able to be connected to students such as these.”

The foundation’s work at Washington University isn’t limited to Hillel. Leslie Rigsby, the school’s director of development, said the family has a long legacy on campus and has sponsored a scholarship there, an effort it has also expanded to the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Helping students is a key theme for grant-making efforts the group has been a part of with other educational institutions as well. The Silk Foundation has donated to scholarships at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School for several years as part of an effort head of school Cheryl Maayan described as “very generous.”

“Over 50 percent of our students are receiving some level of financial aid,” said Maayan, who said about four students a year receive help from the grant. “But we know that not all the leaders of the future are coming from families that can afford full tuition, so it is really important to us to have outside support.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, the endowment’s efforts have assisted with housing for the elderly.

“The Silk Foundation has been very generous to Crown Center since it was established in helping us to meet the needs of lower income senior adults,” said Nikki Goldstein, Crown Center’s executive director. “The trustees themselves have been very supportive in attending events and being visible to the residents and the program participants who benefit from their generous grants.”

Silk dollars have supplied a technology fund to help Crown seniors connect with the wired world.

“In more ways than one, directly and indirectly, our agency and the people that we serve have been able to benefit from the Silk Foundation, and we appreciate all that they’ve done and continue to do,” Goldstein said.

Joan Denison, executive director of Covenant Place, is equally effusive. Her organization has been in the middle of a major initiative to replace the complex’s buildings. She said the Kofkoffs truly understand the need for affordable senior housing.

“They have been a wonderful supporter of this capital redevelopment project that we’ve been working on for several years now,” Denison said.

The Kokoffs have helped in other ways. A Silk grant to the St. Louis Symphony allowed a quartet to tour various Jewish institutions bringing music to the community, including at Covenant and Crown.

“That’s not a grant directly to us, but it is a grant that benefits our residents and our community’s older adults who come and enjoy that performance,” Denison said.

Richard Kofkoff said the foundation happily works with enterprises in the general community like the symphony and Channel Nine as long as they are doing something Jewish. Other efforts back more explicitly Judaic outfits like the New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Student Union or the Jewish Book Festival. The trust also assisted a St. Charles synagogue in trying to find a Torah and bolstered the efforts of NextDor, which gears its programming at young Jewish adults.

“It is really a broad palette of things we donate to and support,” he said. “We make a few longer-term multiyear commitments but we try not to do that exclusively so we can have some flexibility year to year when different issues arise or opportunities to present themselves.”

Richard Kofkoff said the foundation, which works from its endowment and doesn’t actively raise funds, has truly helped him to see just how many worthwhile things in the community need money.

“Our eyes have been opened to the broad spectrum of needs, whether it is education, the elderly, health care, the arts,” he said. “There is so much going on in St. Louis in terms of philanthropic organizations that are worthy recipients. We wish we could do more.”

A third member of the board, Gary Godwin, echoed that sentiment.

“I just find it to be very rewarding to be able to sponsor the different arts, health, social service and Jewish community things we’ve supported over the years,” said the 66-year-old Central West End resident. “It is work I really enjoy doing because it is a chance to get to know the wider Jewish community and to engage with these different institutions.”

He recalled some of the foundation’s most interesting efforts, including one in which it helped send a St. Louis Public Radio reporter to Israel to report on tech startups in the Jewish State and connections they may have to Missouri. He’s also proud of the trust’s support of the Gesher Music Festival scheduled for August.

He recalled his uncle Martin Silk, who was a real estate investor and broker by profession, as an athlete, a reader and someone always interested in the welfare of his fellow Jews.

“Without him, this foundation wouldn’t be here. It was his legacy to help the Jewish community,” he said. “That’s the main point.”

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an intermittent series on charitable organizations that support the St. Louis Jewish community.