A look at ADL’s history in St. Louis

At a 1978 event held by the Missouri Advisory Board of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith are (from left) Detective Daniel J. Duffy, police honoree; Col. Eugene Camp, St. Louis chief of police; Alfred Fleishman, ADL board member and master of ceremonies; Donald Whaley, president, St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners; Gerald A. Rimmel, retiring Missouri ADL board chairman; Norton Y. Beilenson, ADL Board chairman; Detective Sgt. Clarence Harmon, Jr., honoree and Sam Lewin, ADL’s first Volunteer of the Year.  File photo: David  M. Henschel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As Norton Y. Beilenson looked on from a restaurant across the street, two men were engaged in tense conversation in a neighboring park. One was the chief of police of Richmond Heights, Lee Lankford. The other, a tipster clad in a ski mask, had arrived in hopes of securing a briefcase of cash in exchange for information on a cold-blooded sniper killing at a local synagogue.

Meanwhile, a young, amorous couple was ambling in the direction of the pair, apparently oblivious.

“They walk past (Lankford and the tipster) and in a flash she turns around and has a gun (at the tipster’s) head,” remembered Beilenson, a former chair of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois regional office. Turns out the “amorous couple” were two police officers out to arrest the ski-masked tipster trying to extort money.

Work with the local ADL hasn’t always entailed bearing witness to such cloak-and-dagger moments, but it has always involved a commitment to working against hatred in all its forms, whether trying to capture a killer, attempting to pass legislation on cross burnings or simply educating on the importance of accepting others and combating bias.

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Ken Kranzberg, a board member and former president of the local office, puts it bluntly. He said he is often asked by others why he has been a part of the ADL for a quarter century.

“I say to them that all of the wonderful institutions that we have in the Jewish community, all the universities, all the hospitals, everything that we have here, are really great and they deserve support,” he said, “but if we didn’t have the ADL to protect the Jewish community, none of those things would make a damned bit of difference.”

Tracking extremism

Although the national ADL organization is celebrating its centennial this year (see advertising insert this week), the local ADL, which was initially associated with the area’s B’nai B’rith lodges, would be founded in 1958. In its early years, it hosted educational events and kept an eye on extremist and anti-Semitic groups, which remained a significant problem in Missouri as the Civil Rights movement began to come to fruition.

Beilenson’s memories come from the ADL’s work with local police to help solve the murder of Gerald Gordon who was gunned down in the parking lot of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel as he left a bar mitzvah in 1977. His assailant, Joseph Paul Franklin would later be charged with the crime and presently awaits execution in Missouri.

Beilenson said that the ADL maintained close ties with law enforcement during the investigation and Lankford developed a special interest in solving the case. Sometime later, BSKI would host the chief at an ADL-sponsored event as he spoke to the congregation about why he put so much effort into trying to find justice for Gordon.

“Lankford gave one of the most tear- jerking talks I had ever heard,” Beilenson said, remembering that he handed the local lawman a yarmulke to wear for the event. “His heart was into this.”

At that time, the local ADL’s efforts against hate even involved sending individuals to various rallies and meetings of neo-Nazi groups to collect intelligence on their doings.

“They were both Jewish and non-Jewish,” said Beilenson of the infiltrators, “and would come back with photos and all kinds of information.”

Making a ‘World of Difference’

However, by the early 1990s, the ADL had fallen on difficult times as a downturn on giving impacted offices across the country. The national organization decided to shutter various offices including Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Yet, local support emerged to keep the Gateway City’s chapter open and a one-day a week executive director was put in place.

“We not only saved the ADL office here but we saved A World of Difference,” remembered Kranzberg who was in office long enough to see the executive director position become full-time.

A World of Difference has turned out to be among the institution’s biggest successes. Founded in Boston in 1985 in response to school desegregation issues, the program kicked off here two years later and has since grown to encompass much of the group’s educational mission which has become a strong focus of ADL in recent years. Regional director Karen Aroesty said the organization still does advocacy but it is not the entire mission.

“That’s a given and it will always be part of our work but we have just exploded on the anti-bias training scene,” she said. “The reason is that anti-bias work has become more necessary. It has increased in sophistication.”

Meanwhile, the programs have increased in number. One early effort began in the late 1990s with Concepts of Beauty and Bias. Aimed at middle and high school students as part of a partnership with the St. Louis Art Museum, it examines how society determines ideal standards of attractiveness.  That, in turn, led to a 2004 collaboration with the Missouri History Museum called “Reading Bias/Writing Tolerance,” which utilized artifacts from the institution’s collection to discuss racism.

Aroesty said it was a great program, though she admits disliking the name. In fact, she said “tolerance” is a word ADL is moving away from.

“It’s not like you get up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to tolerate people today,’” she said. “Tolerance only requires that you go so far. We are really more about going beyond simply tolerating people. You don’t build community by just tolerating people.”

The most recent initiatives have focused on the advent of cyberbullying. A World of Difference director Tabari Coleman said such efforts show that the ADL continues to try and stay current with problems as they arise.

“It was just being mindful of some of the issues that were showing up in schools and in communities that we were working with,” he said. “It was just about trying to stay current with events and issues taking place in schools.”

‘An important arrow in our quiver’

Not all programs deal with youth. Some educational initiatives have focused on ADL’s longtime partners among police. Ronald Scaggs, law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis, calls the organization “a very important arrow in our quiver.”

“I would have to say that Karen Aroesty and her team have come to our aid many, many times,” he said. “We do a lot of training here and we can count on Karen and her team to help us with that two or three times a year.”

Some of that training also involves interaction with other community institutions.

“One of the values of the program is that it educates those cadets and veterans about the Holocaust but also asks them to self-reflect about their role in the world today and learn the lessons of the past,” said Dan Reich, curator and education director of the local Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

The program he refers to is “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust,” a partnership with the HMLC which started in 2004 and today is a part of the curriculum at both the city and county police academies. Centered on discussions, a tour of the museum and a historical PowerPoint presentation, the initiative is based on a similar idea pioneered in Washington D.C.

“We’ve had police officers repeating the program three or four years later because they say that it had such an impact on them,” Aroesty said.

Still, the Holocaust is a distant historical event. Other lessons take officers further outside their comfort zone by addressing issues even closer to home. “Self-Awareness, Bias and Modern Policing” is a training program for cops, which Aroesty premiered four years ago. She says the program isn’t “hold hands and figure out how we can all get along,” but rather a provocative three-hour session that looks at touchy issues like racial profiling.

“I’ll be honest with you. That’s not an easy program to facilitate,” said Aroesty. “I have to work myself up into a very positive and energetic place to do that because it’s a tough conversation [to have] with them.”

‘Were you aware of this?’

Rhoda Kahn Nussbaum, a board member and chair of A World of Difference, can express easily why she got involved with the group 13 years ago.

“The St. Louis Chapter of the ADL functions very much as a civil rights organization, which is what drew me to it,” she said.

Indeed, though ADL’s focus began in the Jewish community, it has since expanded its purview to include all threatened groups from bullied children to minority religious communities to hate crime victims. Often, that work is done through legislative advocacy.

ADL was deeply involved in pushing for Missouri’s hate crimes statute in 1988 and 11 years afterward it worked to expand the measure to include sexual orientation, gender and disability.

“I think we were one of the earliest states to do that,” said Aroesty, noting that similar protections didn’t pass at the federal level until a decade later.

Other efforts helped push through an expansion of Holocaust education in 2004 and an anti-cross burning measure in 2006.

Sometimes such advocacy earns partners from the larger community. Retired Baptist minister Rev. Dr. Rudy Pulido first began working with ADL over Missouri’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2003, which was designed to protect the right to worship. Pulido notes that the ADL is valuable because it shines a spotlight on things that others may not even realize are occurring.

“They are doing a great job in leading the community to understand the critical issues that are before us as far as violence and discrimination. I look to them,” he said. “They are the first ones to contact me and say, ‘Were you aware of this?’”

They can also help dispel myths as well. Robert “Bob” Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Jewish Light, remembers a phone call from a concerned reader who had heard that a local grocery chain was part of an anti-Israel boycott.

After a call to ADL, the rumor proved false.

“They help prevent people from jumping to the wrong conclusions and taking actions that are counterproductive,” said Cohn, who has been associated with group since 1969 and sits on its board.

Under the radar

Roberta “Robbye” Frank, who chairs the local ADL’s development committee, joined the board not long after her husband’s death.

“The ADL had been one of his passions for about 25 years,” Frank recalled. “He was on the board for most of that time.”

She was surprised at how quietly the organization often operates and admits she didn’t really know the full extent of its role until she became involved.

“I learned so much more about what the ADL does for the community and the nation that I didn’t appreciate or understand while being on the sidelines prior to that,” she said. “It’s just been so under-the-radar.”

That’s not an unusual reaction. Aroesty said people often aren’t aware of the behind-the-scenes aspects of ADL’s mission.

Still, they often feel reassured knowing it is there.

“That’s what we still do,” she said. “We get to know people in communities. We get to know police officers and elected officials and school principals. When they need us, we respond.”

Upcoming ADL event

The Anti-Defamation League’s World of Difference Institute will honor the Saint Louis Art Museum and thank Jerome Glick during “The Beauty of Art”  from 6 – 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21 at Monarch, 7401 Manchester Road in Maplewood.  There will be silent and live auctions with artwork from prominent local collections. The guest auctioneer will be Mark Howald with color commentary from Philip Slein of the Slein Gallery.  For more information contact Karen Aroesty at [email protected] or 314-721-1270.

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