A year on the job, a year in lockdown: Jewish Federation chief shares lessons from the pandemic

So far, Federation has invested $471,692 from the COVID-19 Response Fund and an additional $225,000 from the Jewish Federation of North America’s Human Services Match. The investments have helped to supply cash assistance, food security and support for numerous community organizations. An additional $248,308 remains in the fund to address future needs brought on by the pandemic. INFOGRAPHIC: JEWISH FEDERATION OF ST. LOUIS 

Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief

It was almost like a bad joke. Move to a new city and, two months later, the world as you were just beginning to know it shuts down.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is no laughing matter, and no one knows that better than Brian Herstig, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He and his wife, Barb, and their toddler daughter (he also has two adult children) moved here from Minneapolis so that he could start his job Jan. 6, 2020. 

By March 13, Federation, along with most every other business and organization in St. Louis County, had closed its door and sent employees home to work.

Not long after, Herstig, 50, and his team at Federation sprang into action, overseeing the fundraising and distribution of  the COVID-19 Community Response Fund to help fulfill the food, mental health and financial assistance needs, among others, of the St. Louis Jewish community. Herstig explained in an interview with the Light in May how the funds collected were being distributed and shared lessons learned from the financial crisis of 2008.

Last week, the Light spoke to Herstig again, to see how Federation and its many partners were faring a year after shutting down. We also includedthe above graphic to explain how the Community Response Fund has been spent thus far, choosing to focus this conversation on the pandemic’s impact on Federation and the local Jewish community moving forward. (His responses have been edited for space.)

How do you see the STL Jewish community changing as a result of the pandemic?

I can say this, the pandemic has highlighted some needs that always existed in the community. It certainly has highlighted for us the important role that Federation plays at a time like this. And it’s reenforced what we consider our three main priorities, which I call the FCC. We are a funder, a communicator and a convener. All three of those things were highlighted during this pandemic. 

The funding piece, we’ve discussed (see accompanying graphic). In terms of communicating, when this pandemic started, we began meeting daily with the leadership of this community in order to understand what was going on and make sure there were efforts addressing the most vital needs in our community without being duplicative. Those conversations are continuing in order to hear what’s going on and make sure there is the appropriate response done in a coordinated and communicated way.

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The convener piece has been really, really important. There needs to be a place where people can come together and have conversations about what we are seeing and hearing, and recognize that this need over here and this need over there may not sound like they are connected, but they are. The opportunity to do that and address needs collectively as opposed to individually has been really important. It’s a good reminder that as a community, an ecosystem, we are stronger when we address things together and lean on those of us who have expertise in different areas to help address the needs of the community.

Have any new collaborations come out as a result?

It’s already happening. For example, the early childhood directors had been meeting as a group regularly, but we actually set aside a pool of dollars because it was a priority even before the pandemic started. They’ve been meeting to talk about collectively what are our longer term needs and issues. The backdrop of the pandemic has forced away some of the territorial conversations and the like to allow people to focus on the basic needs they all have in common, rather than what differentiates.

We’ve been having a lot of conversations about food and food delivery and food availability in the community with a broad group of people. We have a better understanding of the needs that exist there, and I think that will continue. 

And certainly, [in]the senior serving portion of community (Covenant Place, Crown Center and NORC), a good number of things have come together in talking about addressing needs, and I think that will continue. 

When do you see Jewish organizations opening up and how will Federation assist in that process?

There are 60 Jewish and Jewish-related organizations in the state of Missouri. Everyone is a partner to us. We don’t manage or control any of them. Our job is to make sure the needs of the community are being addressed. 

We decided to lead by example. We actually closed a little earlier than (St. Louis County) and made the decision to say that our staff won’t be attending large events before that was common. 

My primary responsibility is to the (Federation) staff and volunteers. When we decided to shut down, we did so because we did not believe at the time that we could keep those groups safe doing business as usual. That’s going to be our overriding concern as we look at reopening: How do we best protect the safety of our staff and volunteers? 

Because we closed a  little earlier than most, we may open later than most, in part because we are not a direct service organization. We don’t need to be in the building. And we’ve learned that we can absolutely do our work and do it well on Zoom.

I don’t know when things are going to open, but each of the organizations in the St. Louis Jewish ecosystem works with a different set of rules. Preschools and day schools are very different than Federation, or the Light, which is different than the JCC, which is different than synagogues. There is no one size fits all. Every organization needs to make the decisions that are best for their business model and for the needs of their constituency. 

Are there some lessons learned from the pandemic that were unexpected? How will they affect Federation going forward?

There are a lot. The world is changing. The way we assumed business has to be done or had been done for a long time – that you can’t have people work from home because they won’t really focus – that has changed. I can’t answer what that means moving forward and how we, as a community of Americans, will address that. 

I do think there has been impact in that there is a greater willingness and focus on collaboration, on sharing, on talking to partners who do similar work to find out what’s going on and how they are addressing things. We are going to do the work that we can in order to encourage and hold on to that for as long as we can. There are a lot of issues that exist in this community, like any other, that are best served by working collaboratively and being open and honest. One of the things this pandemic has done is break down those walls. 

Also, I think the pandemic reenforced the fact that our community is not so different from the community around us. There are poor and near poor. There are people living paycheck to paycheck. There are the frail and elderly who are vulnerable. There are people in need who often are hidden from our everyday lives and who will continue to need support from us. Those needs have been highlighted due to what’s going on. But they’ve always been there, and they will continue to be there, and we as a community need to help them. 

What about the vaccine rollout? Has Federation, or will Federation, get involved in that? 

No (chuckling). We have facilities and organizations that are much more in tune with that, like Covenant or Crown or the J, that serve vulnerable populations. Certainly, through (Federation lobbyist) David Winton, we are aware of what’s going on. He’s connected at the highest levels. If David ever heard anywhere that there was a need and that we could help address and fulfill that need by bringing together the community, we would do that in a heartbeat. 

Has the pandemic affected Federation’s overall fundraising campaign?

No, people are giving very generously. There are lots of reasons I came to this community, but one is that this is a community of people who believe in the organizations they built over the past 120 years and support them significantly. This is a community that is home, it is not a transient community. People have shown their generosity and their support for their neighbors – those they know and those they don’t know – through this. They are incredible.  

Once it’s safe, what are you looking most forward to doing in St. Louis?

I hear there are some nice restaurants in town (laughing) and great places to visit and things to do. We were here for two months with a 3-year-old before everything shut down. We wouldn’t even know what to do if tomorrow they said all clear, everyone can go out. 

I’m looking forward to getting to know those pieces of St. Louis. I feel liked there is a group of people I have gotten to know, but I haven’t sat in their backyards and had a meal or a drink with them, and I’m looking forward to that. Also, meeting people’s dog and kids.