New exhibit pays tribute to 120 years of St. Louis’ Jewish Federation


Bill Motchan , Special to the Jewish Light

A new exhibit opening April 10 at the Jewish Federation traces the organization’s roots in the late 1880s through today. The exhibit, in the lobby of the Kaplan Feldman Complex, honors the Federation’s past and its contributions to the St. Louis Jewish community over 120 years.

The goal of the exhibit is to honor those efforts and pay tribute to volunteers through a striking visual display, according to Brian Herstig, Federation president and CEO.

“When you walk through the exhibit, you’ll see themes that come through really strongly,” Herstig said. “One is that we have been doing our work differently over 120 years, but we’ve been doing the same basic work of helping families, building a community and protecting people for 120 years. That’s not going to change moving forward either.

“We’re lucky that we have significant partners in this community through Jewish Family Services, through the JCC, through our synagogues and others who have been there. And this ecosystem should always take an opportunity to celebrate the good, given everything that’s been going on. This is an opportunity for us to all reflect back on where we’ve come from, where we’ve been and what’s possible moving forward.”


The exhibit traces the history of the Federation and illustrates how it has mobilized the St. Louis Jewish community to respond to issues and crises. For example, the Federation and its partners provided aid to refugees during World War II. More recently, the Federation-led Ukraine relief fund has provided food, medicine, first aid, and evacuation for refugees.

“This is why this organization is here,” Herstig said. “For over 120 years, we’ve dealt with emergencies and crises. It is one of the reasons that we were built. And what we’re here for as a community is, anytime that there are Jews in need here, across the country or around the world, our job is to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

The assembly of an exhibit to tell the Federation story over 120 years was not a simple undertaking. It began six months ago and was developed by Diane Everman, archivist at the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives. It was important for her to include highlights and honor past leaders. Equally significant for a display of this type was to engage visitors by telling compelling stories.

“If you think back in just American history or world history for the last 120 years, a lot has happened,” Everman said. “I think that the Federation reflects those changes—good, bad, indifferent — all of those things are reflected. It’s also good to see that the Federation diversified, changed, dealt with those specifics, whether it was a crisis or not, over time, and did it very well.”

Everman developed several key themes for the exhibit, including the St. Louis Jewish community’s connection to Israel, Jewish education efforts and how women have played a key role in the Federation and its related causes. It features heroines like Blanche Renard, a social worker who became the organization’s executive director during the Great Depression.

“I think she’s a fascinating individual who came to the Federation as an executive director at a very crucial time,” Everman said. “I wanted to make sure that she was in there. I also wanted to make sure that the relationship with Israel was featured. There’s a little card with the Israeli flag flying at the 1904 World’s Fair. Those kinds of things, they might start out as something much smaller, but when you look back at them, they’ve had a huge impact.”

Everman hopes that visitors to the exhibit pay attention to those details that show how the Federation has been an incubator for the St. Louis community.

“The Federation is a mirror of the community, and it responds to the community—whether it’s immigrants or food insecurity or people just a little down on their luck at the moment who need a little helping hand—whatever the need is. That might mean helping with housing, it might mean a small loan, it might be assistance in fleeing a war-torn area. All of those things, the Federation steps up and does, and it’s because they are the community, they reflect the community, and that’s what they’re there for.”

The public can view the exhibit from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 10 at Jewish Federation’s “Here. For Good” event, which honors our past, celebrates our present, and looks forward together to our future. The Kaplan Feldman Complex is located at 12 Millstone Campus Drive.