JUJ gives Heschel-King Awards


William (Bill) Kahn, former longtime executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and previously of the Jewish Community Center, and Dr. Henry Givens, president of Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis, received the 2008 Heschel-King Awards from Jews United for Justice at a program attended by over 200 people at the site of the old Young Men’s Hebrew Association, now the West End Community Center on Union Avenue near Delmar Boulevard.

Isadore E. Millstone, who this month celebrated his 101st birthday, paid tribute to both Bill Kahn and Dr. Givens and recalled when the YMHA Building was constructed in 1927. Taking note of all of the changes he has observed during his life, “You always have to be ready for change; nothing is static, and things constantly change. I want to thank and congratulate both Bill Kahn and Dr. Givens for all that they have done in the community for its betterment.”


The award is named in honor of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prominent American rabbi and scholar, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King in the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. during the 1965 civil rights struggle.

Each year Jews United for Justice presents the Heschel-King Awards to members of the Jewish and African-American communities whose records of public service and commitment to civil and human rights exemplifies the ideals of the two civil rights figures.

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation served as master of ceremonies for the program. Rabbi James Stone Goodman offered an invocation which paid tribute, in poetic form to Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, and later offered a tribute performance to the 2008 honorees, Bill Kahn and Dr. Henry Givens, Jr. Words of welcome were offered by Dr. Maisha Hamilton, executive director of the West End Community Conference, who recalled the “profound influence” the life and career of Dr. King had on her life.

Jesse Swanigan of the Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, substituted for Rev. William G. Gillespe, pastor of the church, who was unable to attend because he needed to officiate at a funeral. “Dr. Givens, a native of St. Louis, has been president of Harris-Stowe State University since it became a state institution in 1979,” Swanigan said. “He was educated in the public schools in St. Louis, earned his bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University in Missouri, his master’s degree at the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. at St. Louis University. He also did post-doctoral studies in higher education administration at Harvard University. In the Webster Groves School District, he became principal of the first prototype of a magnet school, and soon he became the first African-American to serve as assistant to the Missouri Superintendant of Schools. He also served as interim president of Lincoln University when it was experiencing financial difficulties, while continuing to head Harris-Stowe.”

Givens said he was very grateful for the award, “and to be sharing it with Bill Kahn.” He recalled his childhood and youth in St. Louis attending public schools and his years at Harris Stowe. “When I started there we had one building and offered one degree; now we are a full-fledged university,” he said.

Longtime friend and former colleague of Bill Kahn, Mike Lainoff, introduced the second honoree, recalling their many years of working together at the old Y, Council House and later at the Jewish Community Center. He recalled Kahn’s long career, which included serving over 20 years as executive vice president of the Jewish Community Center, becoming executive director of the Jewish Federation of his native Pittsburgh, and his service as executive director of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies when it merged with the previously separate United Jewish Appeal of New York. He and Rabbi Goodman also recalled his work with Dr. King and his “Vision Program,” which provided educational oppportunities for underserved African-American youth in the South.

Kahn later returned to St. Louis where he served for four years as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Along with Tom Green, past president of the Jewish Federation and Leo Wolff, a Holocaust survivor, Kahn was the driving force towards the establishment of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.

In his remarks, Kahn recalled that Dr. King was a featured speaker in the Jewish Community Center’s speakers series, the Liberal Forum. “We decided that we had to have a larger venue and Rabbi Grollman cooperated in making United Hebrew on Skinker available, with the assistance and backing of I. E. Millstone. At a dinner for Dr. King before his speech, at the home of Paul Berwald, Dr. King seemed exhausted, as well he should have been. He had been arrested, roughed up and jailed in Alabama just before he came to St. Louis. To rescue him from the after-dinner questions, my wife Shirlee and I said we needed to go downtown to meet the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We were able to give Dr. King a ride around St. Louis and let him unwind a little. Later, when he gave the speech, there were 2,500 people who came, who gave him a 15-minute standing ovation. I remember so vividly people lined up just to touch the jacket of his suit.”

Following the tribute performance by Rabbi Goodman, Michael Kahn, president of JUJ, formally presented the awards to Givens and Bill Kahn, pointing out, the latter “happens to be my Dad.” Michael Kahn recalled a childhood memory of his father and an African-American fan at a St. Louis Cardinals football game, and their shared good time at the event, which was followed by Bill Kahn and the African-American fan sharing a hug after the Cardinals’ victory. “Sometimes the memories of seemingly small things loom very large in later years,” Michael Kahn said. The program also included a performance of a piece called “A Celebration of Brazil,” rhythms in Anoa Dance Theatre, a program of Better Family Life, housed in the West End Community Center.

Published Jan. 30, 2008