St. Louis Jewish Federation CEO acclimates to new job amidst COVID crisis

Brian Herstig, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis

Most people in the St. Louis Jewish community can tell you what the Jewish Community Center looks like when it is full or what a particular sanctuary sounds like on Yom Kippur. But Brian Herstig, the new president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, hardly had a chance to acclimate to the city before it shut down. He started in his position in January.

Two months later, the social distancing rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic went into effect.

Now Herstig, who moved here from Minneapolis, is charged with overseeing the fundraising and distribution of the COVID-19 Community Response Fund. And he is working with people he only recently met.

Herstig spoke with the Jewish Light Wednesday morning about Federation’s efforts to serve the Jewish community during a time of crisis. (His responses have been edited for space.)

How do you think the disbursement of the Community Response Fund has gone so far?

I think we are following what the committee and the group has put together for guidelines, and we are in touch with the community partners and service providers to work through what the needs are and the ways that the fund can be helpful.

We were lucky that Michael and Carol Staenberg offered to kick it off with a $100,000 match, and as of yesterday, we raised $657,000 from more than 400 donors. That’s an incredible response from a community of our size, given all the pressures and challenges that everyone is facing right now.

How much of that money has been disbursed?

We had an initial round of disbursements last month, where more than $100,000 was allocated. We continue to assess the evolving needs throughout the community. Every day, more and more issues come up that no one could have even imagined just a few short weeks ago.

There was a task force meeting last night to review additional basic needs that we have been learning about from our assessments. We will likely put forward an investment recommendation at our board meeting this month.

Do you have a sense of where the greatest needs are and where the funding could go for this next round?

I think they continue to be in the areas that the initial funds were used, so that’s supporting food needs, mental health needs and financial assistance. In the first round, we specifically had a focus on some Passover food needs because it was a unique and specific issue to our community and the timing of it was right around then. But really those are the three big buckets that we continue to hear and see a need for.

When you say financial assistance, is that direct payments to people or what does that look like?

The community learned a lot of things from the 2007 and 2008 (economic) downturn and even though before then, there was financial assistance available, they really beefed it up.

[Jewish Family Services] manages two pools of funds that are funded by Federation each year. One is a zero-interest loan fund, and the other is emergency financial need, so direct financial assistance for things like paying bills. They both have been in existence for quite some time, and for our first round of funding, we added additional dollars to those pools, to make sure that there was more than enough for several months or until we had an opportunity to see what was coming through.

We annually give some dollars to each of the rabbi’s chesed [kindness] funds. We moved up the timing and gave it much earlier than we normally do, understanding that there were needs immediately and that many people turn to their synagogue as a first-line of support.

It’s interesting that you say, we learned a lot from the financial crisis of 2007-2008. You weren’t here then, but I guess from your conversations during this crisis, people have been referring back to that financial crisis? What makes you say we have learned a lot from that period?

Certain safety nets were in place because of that, but also I have had the opportunity to speak with the group of past presidents from Federation. One of the things that was most important that we are really taking to heart, is that during that crisis, dollars were raised and distributed almost immediately, and the longer-term impact of what was going on wasn’t really known or considered.

We kind of spent up a bulk of the money before some of those longer-term things came into play (like job retraining or joblessness), so part of the reason we specifically called this a response fund, rather than an emergency fund, was because our intention was to go out to the community, raise funds to respond to both the long-and short-term needs caused by this pandemic. We are working really hard to make sure we are responsible stewards of the community’s largesse. We want to make sure that when we have gone out and asked for it, we are planning for the entirety of what the crisis is going to bring about and maintaining funds to support all of those needs now and into the future.

A lot of synagogues all over the United States were already facing declining membership, and I think for some people, being a member of a synagogue and paying dues might be considered a discretionary expense. So is that something you and other Federation leaders have talked about? What do we do if synagogues start to see their membership decrease because of the pandemic?

I would say that a lot of organizations are challenged by their business model and that this crisis is bringing light to those challenges. It’s also true that organizations that were in a precarious financial situation beforehand are finding themselves even more taxed, and those are issues that each organization should have been considering and needs to consider. This crisis is only going to shed light on that, but I continue to believe that what this crisis is also doing is opening up opportunities for creativity and for thinking outside the box that most of us are used to — looking for partnerships, looking for ways to come out of this leaner but stronger, so I am encouraged by the fact that there are organizations that are asking the hard questions of themselves.

Overall, I believe the Jewish people’s story is one of change. For 5,000 years, what we have done successfully — and the reason we are still around — is we have the ability to change, to hold onto the core of what we are, but to change. The Temple was destroyed, twice, the last time about 2,000 years ago, and we had a religion that was entirely focused on going to the Temple, and we as a people, figured out a way to change and make our religion and culture about something different.

I believe this isn’t nearly as dramatic an example, but we continue to change, and this community will change, and things will grow and pop up to take on some of the things that are dropped by others because that’s what we have a history of doing.

You mentioned that these organizations are asking themselves hard questions. What are those questions?

I think some of those things are around business models, how do they work, do they work? There are overlaps of services in the community, and there are certainly organizations that are asking, ‘We are doing this and several others are. Should we be in this business? Should we leave it others to take the lead?’

Since you are doing the fundraising now, how will this affect Federation’s annual fundraising campaign?

I can answer that two ways: Number one, that’s not really something that we should be concerned with right now because we have more immediate and urgent needs, but I do believe that we are transitioning from the emergency response into the recovery. What comes next?

I think this has always been a really strong community that has believed in its institutions, that has supported the annual campaign, so we believe that people will continue to give and give generously to it. Our hope is that we will see a flat or increased campaign. Early signs from reaching out to major donors are encouraging, but this is something that is unprecedented for us and everyone. It’s going to have, not just an impact right now, but will very likely have long-term ramifications, and we need to be prepared to support the basic needs of individuals in this community, knowing that this is likely a transition in what is normal, and we need to be aware of that and focused on ensuring that our community remains vibrant and strong through whatever this pandemic brings.

What’s it like for you personally to be going through this crisis so soon after you started in the position?

I certainly have gotten the opportunity to meet and talk more regularly with a lot of the community leadership both volunteer and professional in a way that I thought would take a lot longer, and there has been a certain stripping away of the face that everybody puts on — to put on a good face. These are challenging times, and these are challenging situations, and we have to figure out how we are going to move forward.

All of the reasons I came here have been absolutely reinforced. It’s an extraordinary community. It believes in itself. It believes in supporting each other as individuals and as institutions. And people put a lot of time and energy and care into those organizations. Whether they are synagogues or companies like JFS and JCC. People believe in them and are working hard to support them and to turn to them at this time of need because that’s what they have been built for over the last 120 years.

I have been really surprised and gratified by the welcome I received and also really grateful for the willingness of people to be honest and open about some of the challenges that we are all facing right now.