Jewish Federation of St. Louis hires new CEO

Brian Herstig (right) visited the Kaplan Feldman Complex on Nov. 7 to sign a contract with Greg Yawitz, board chair of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, to become the organization’s new president and CEO. Photo: Eric Berger

By Scott Berzon, Executive Director, and Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Jewish Federation of St. Louis has hired a president and CEO with more than a decade of experience in leadership roles at Federations in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh.

Brian Herstig, 48, replaces Andrew Rehfeld, who left Federation in March after seven years to become president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical school.

“I’m a social worker by training, and I grew up wanting to make a difference, and when I looked around and tried to determine where I [was] going to do that, why wouldn’t I do that in a community that I’m already a part of and that I understand?” said Herstig, who will start in January.

He will lead an organization that provides funding for Jewish education, social services, a partnership with Israel, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Light, among other entities. During last year’s campaign, Federation raised $10.2 million.

Herstig most recently worked as director of advancement and operations for Twin Cities RISE, a secular nonprofit that aims to lift people out of poverty by providing them long-term, stable employment.

Prior to that, he worked as chief operating officer and assistant executive director at Minneapolis Jewish Federation but left in 2010 because he felt that he needed to spend time outside the Jewish world to find new ideas about the challenges “that we’re facing,” said Herstig, a father of three.

“I spent the next nine years purposely finding organizations that I felt were unique and different and approached the problems of the communities that I was in in unique ways,” said Herstig, who also led a fundraising organization for a library and served as director of development for an organization dedicated to providing medical care for children with heart defects.

“Brian has the knowledge from his experience in the Federation world and the knowledge outside of the Federation world which gives him perspective to help advance this community because he’s got diverse experiences and diverse knowledge,” said Greg Yawitz, Federation board chair.

Herstig said that one of the reasons he took the job is because he feels that Federation has already completed a number of important steps for a Jewish organization, such as conducting a demographic study in 2014 and producing a strategic plan in 2017, which had a primary goal of getting donors more involved in the Jewish community rather than just asking them for money.

“For me, I think the priority is to come in and meet people and listen because one thing I am not an expert on at all is this community right now — every community is different,” Herstig said.

Still, there are common issues among Jewish communities in the United States, such as decreased engagement in Jewish life and disagreements around Israel.

“Politics is always divisive — even within our own community — so trying to base a relationship off of politics is always going to be tough to do. It’s tough to do with your neighbors or family, so that’s not what our relationship should be based on; it should be based on what we’re trying to accomplish in the world, and we all have a sacred duty to leave the world a better place than when we got here,” said Herstig, who identifies as a Conservative Jew.

Yawitz said that there was a “very robust” group of candidates and that “Brian quickly rose to the top.”

He said Federation valued Herstig’s work as director of the young adult division at Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, in particular his work in “next generation engagement; that was very important.”

In fundraising, Yawitz appreciated Herstig’s ability to “help people understand the reasons why they would choose to do something, not because they felt like they had to.”

Herstig said he attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin with people from St. Louis and “from the way they interacted together” saw “that it was a close-knit, tight community.”

“Plus it’s a little warmer than Minneapolis, so I’ll take that,” he said.

And one of his son’s favorite team is the Cardinals.

Federation expects to hold community events with Herstig soon after he starts.