A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Brian Herstig reflects on tenure as he bids farewell to St. Louis Jewish Federation

On June 30, Brian Herstig will no longer be Jewish Federation of St. Louis president and CEO. In March, he announced that he was resigning his position so that he and his wife, Barb, and their two young children, could move closer to family in Minnesota. 

Brian Herstig.

Herstig, 54, began his tenure here in early 2020, just a couple of months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of the world. In the 4½ years that he has helmed Federation, the St. Louis Jewish community has seen the opening of a new Holocaust Museum, the start of a war in Ukraine and the attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, as well as a dramatic uptick in antisemitism.

Recently, the Jewish Light caught up with Herstig and asked him to reflect on this time here. What follows is a wide-ranging interview where he discusses accomplishments he takes pride in, challenges he faced and what he thinks the local Jewish community needs to do moving forward, among other topics.

What is your proudest accomplishment during your tenure as president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis?

I believe the thing that will be looked back on most as important to the growth of the community was the development, launch and spin-off of the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum. 

For me personally, taking on the fundraising, building and overall management of the project, during a transition of leadership of the museum and during COVID, was one of the most rewarding, exhausting and learning experiences I have had.

Is there one memory of your time here that continues to resonate?

One thing that still stands with me is the two days following Oct. 7. I woke up in the morning and saw what had happened. 

The first thing I did was reach out to the incredible Scott Biondo, our director of community security. I knew there was a need to ensure the emotional and mental well-being of our community, but also to inform the most religious segment of our community about what happened, because it was both Shabbat and a holiday. 

With staff, we crafted a message to share with rabbis and leadership about what had transpired. Scott and our security team hand delivered that message to every Orthodox community partner within hours. The Leadership Team then came in and, within 36 hours, we had started to develop a community response, created a strategy and leadership plan, recruited individuals and had an initial meeting of the Israel Emergency Response Task Force.

How would you characterize the Jewish community of St. Louis?

Warm, stable, willing.

What was the most significant challenge you encountered during your time at Federation, and how did you overcome it?

Simply the unprecedented nature of the last four-plus years. I got here in January 2020 and, within two months, there was a global pandemic. No one — NO ONE — had any idea what to do or how long it would last. 

Every day we came in and did our very best to remain true to our mission and values and ensure that our Jewish community — the St. Louis Jewish ecosystem — had the information and resources it needed to function and survive. 

After that subsided, there was a war launched in Ukraine that, sadly, still continues today. I think we came to terms with what was necessary to help our Jewish brothers and sisters being impacted when the twin hits of a brutal attack and war on the state of Israel occurred, and destabilizing and terrifying antisemitism burst to the surface, particularly on college campuses. 

For any one of these things, there were very thin playbooks, if any. Put together and back-to-back-to-back, there was no history or wisdom to lean on. Working with our partners across the community and North America we worked through what we believed was best.

How do you think the Jewish community in St. Louis has evolved during your leadership?

In some ways, it is closer and more tolerant. In COVID and the early days of the war, it was clear we were all in this together and that challenges one of us were facing, or would be faced with, were challenges being faced by all. There was a support built among agency leadership to help one another. 

In many ways, that continues through the deeper and more personal relationships that have been built and nurtured. 

At the same time, our community is no more immune from what is happening across the country and around the world than any other. There is a frightening intolerance of difference of opinion and desire to marginalize those who don’t share the same view of things. In that we mimic the larger culture right now.

What is your vision for the future of Federation here, and what advice would you give to your successor?

It is not my place to have a future vision for this community. Thankfully, I believe that there is a smart, committed, capable and caring group of people who lead this community and this organization. The volunteer and professional leadership in place are outstanding. I have always been a process person, and I trust the process, with the people in place, to set a compelling, expansive and engaging vision for this community. 

As to advice, I would say “lean in.” There are such bright, committed and caring people here who want to make St. Louis and our Jewish community the best it can be. Meet with them all. Listen to them all. Find a way to support and activate them all.  

How has your experience as president and CEO influenced your personal and professional growth?

This is such a hard question to answer right now. I am more than certain it has had a profound impact on my professional and personal growth. But I have hardly had a moment to reflect on that as I am still in my role. 

I know I have an even greater appreciation for the need to engage broadly and honestly with stakeholders. I know it has reinforced the belief I came in with that finding the smartest, most diverse, most talented people to surround yourself with is the way to assure creativity and excellence.

Can you discuss a partnership or collaboration that was particularly successful or meaningful during your tenure?

Given the unique nature of world events during my time and the unprecedented nature of them, the need to work closely and nimbly with the board chair has been highlighted. While that is normally true, there was much more “flying by the seat of your pants” going on. So, an open, honest and collaborative relationship was critical. 

I was fortunate to have as partners two individuals who really embodied those qualities, understood and respected the lay-professional dynamic and roles and made the space and time to be a true partner. Both Greg Yawitz and Bob Newmark were extraordinary, the right people at the right time for this community.

What do you see as the most pressing needs of the St. Louis Jewish community moving forward?

Certainly, there is a need to listen to one another and find new ways forward, given the divisiveness of so much right now. But my biggest takeaway is the one I came in with, which, if not for COVID and some wars, we would have gotten to sooner: The Jewish community, and Federation in particular, needs to create a new way forward. 

Our mission and vision are just as relevant, just as important, just as impactful as they ever were. But the structure of our work and the processes we have created and developed over the last century need to adjust for the world around us, which has changed and adapted. 

The Jewish community itself is changing. We need to change with it. But that is the secret survival sauce of our people and why we are still here but nearly every other culture and country we have been persecuted in, thrown out of or barred from is not. We are a people and culture of change.

Other than the people, what will you miss most about St. Louis?

This is a family friendly town that has so much to offer. It has most all of the amenities of a big, historic city but not the pollution, traffic and hassle. You can get downtown in 20 minutes. There are distinct neighborhoods to visit. I didn’t get to explore it enough, due to COVID, but this town has so much to offer.

 

 

 

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About the Contributor
Ellen Futterman
Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief
A native of Westbury, New York, Ellen Futterman broke into the world of big city journalism as a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the latter part of the 20th century. Deciding that Tinsel Town was not exciting enough for her, she moved on to that hub of glamour and sophistication, Belleville, Ill., where she became a feature writer, columnist and food editor for the Belleville News-Democrat. A year later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch scooped her up, neither guessing at the full range of her talents, nor the extent of her shoe collection. She went on to work at the Post-Dispatch for 25 years, during which time she covered hard news, education, features, investigative projects, profiles, sports, entertainment, fashion, interiors, business, travel and movies. She won numerous major local and national awards for her reporting on "Women Who Kill" and on a four-part series about teen-age pregnancy, 'Children Having Children.'" Among her many jobs at the newspaper, Ellen was a columnist for three years, Arts and Entertainment Editor, Critic-at-large and Daily Features (Everyday) Editor. She invented two sections from scratch, one of which recently morphed from Get Out, begun in 1995, to GO. In January of 2009, Ellen joined the St. Louis Jewish Light as its editor, where she is responsible for overseeing editorial operations, including managing both staff members and freelancers. Under her tutelage, the Light has won 16 Rockower Awards — considered the Jewish Pulitzer’s — including two personally for Excellence in Commentary for her weekly News & Schmooze column. She also is the communications content editor for the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis. Ellen and her husband, Jeff Burkett, a middle school principal, live in Olivette and have three children. Ellen can be reached at 314-743-3669 or at [email protected].