Outreach and advocacy are tools of the trade for Aroesty, Dennis

BY PAM DROOG JONES, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When 16-year-old Betsy Gallop was chosen to serve as a page in the United States Senate in 1967, her father, Don, asked his friend Bill Peck, former dean of the Washington University School of Medicine, to recommend a Washington, D.C. family his daughter could stay with. After all, it was the summer of the “Senate page scandal.” Peck suggested the Shapiros, who had a daughter, Karen, around the same age as Betsy. A few years later, when Karen Shapiro came to St. Louis to attend law school at Washington University, she lived in the Gallops’ pool house until she found an apartment.

After additional twists and turns of fate, the women now lead two important organizations that defend the Jewish community in St. Louis and beyond. Betsy Gallop Dennis is executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Karen Shapiro Aroesty is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

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“We both took the same path, practicing law, then leading a nonprofit,” Dennis says. “And we’re friends in addition to the professional connection.” Adds Aroesty, “Being colleagues in the Jewish community frankly is fun. We enjoy shared responsibility as well as shared interests.”

The two women also share a deep commitment to their Jewish identity. “I think it’s very hard to separate what I do for my work from my identity as a Jew and an advocate,” Aroesty says. “Becoming a lay leader has made my Jewish identity become more confident and educated and stronger. I feel a greater sense of responsibility to make the community a better environment for Jews and Jewish issues and causes.”

Dennis says when she was growing up, her family was not religiously observant, “but Jewish values of family, education, the law and social justice were very important. Now that I have my own family, Judaism has had a much greater influence in my life and as a result, on my kids’ lives. In fact, my daughters think being Jewish is cool!” She adds, “I love that Judaism is about looking back and ahead. We honor the past and our ancestors while we work on the future for our children.”

Karen Aroesty: advocate

Aroesty grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. “The first job I had was in 10th grade, working on the campaign of a Montgomery County, Maryland, congressman,” she says. “The whole discussion about advocacy started then.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Barnard College in 1983. Although she loved music and hosted a radio show in college, broadcasting live from the Blue Note in Manhattan, “the reality was there was no need at the time for my services,” she says.

Instead Aroesty went to work for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign as a member of the field operations staff. “I traveled around the country doing grassroots organizing in places I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to go to,” Aroesty says, like Bangor, Maine, Tampa, Fla., and Enid, Okla.

She spent six weeks in Pennsylvania traveling with the late Florida Sen. Claude Pepper. “He was a god among the seniors,” Aroesty says. “My job was to take care of his medications and get him to events. He’d ask me, ‘What am I supposed to say?’ and I’d tell him. He must have been around 84 years old.”

Afterwards, Aroesty says, “I went back home and realized I was burned out and 30 pounds overweight from eating fast food for a year.” She went to work for the National Cable Television Association for more than two years. “But my parents kept telling me I had to learn a trade,” she says. “Finally I gave in and came to St. Louis in 1986 to study law at Washington University.” She never thought she’d settle here permanently, but she met her former husband, Steve Aroesty, at law school and he had a job in St. Louis. “So I stayed,” she says.

After law school Aroesty practiced family and housing law until her son was born. “If I could have taken him to court with me I probably would have continued working,” she says. While she stayed home with her son and daughter she became an active volunteer at Shaare Zedek and at the ADL and soon was invited to join the League’s board.

When she returned to the workplace she opened a law practice at home, then worked for a labor law attorney. Then in October 2000 came the call from ADL headquarters asking Aroesty to head the St. Louis regional office. “I was in a wonderful position, doing good work in a very gracious practice,” Aroesty says. “So I stayed up one night for 24 hours to think it over and finally said OK.”

Aroesty says the League is “all about advocacy and people who are in vulnerable communities who really can’t advocate for themselves. And that’s what we do here in terms of hate crimes and discrimination.” Occasionally her role calls for her to be adversarial. “I’m generally a person who avoids conflict,” she says. “Now a lot of people may read this and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ I’m not exactly perceived as a shrinking violet. However, the nature of the work we do here for the most part is about building community. We build the controversial issues into the educational programs and collaborative projects and the results are positive.”

In a typical week Aroesty is likely to counsel people who call the League with discrimination complaints, meet with the organization’s six standing committees, consult with several of the League’s 48 board members, run leadership and education programs, meet with government officials and law enforcement officers and talk to the media.

Aroesty also devotes considerable time to writing grant requests and working with corporations to raise money for the organization’s effective and widely used education programs for students, teachers, law enforcement and others. “Fundraising is a constant effort. We cost between $400,000 and $500,000 a year, and we have to raise all the money we spend here,” Aroesty says. “We get some money from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, but we send it to our New York office, which allocates funds to us. But we’re getting better at writing grants and asking people for money.”

Aroesty says “things on the nutcase front appear a little quieter lately,” however, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant activity certainly has not disappeared from the St. Louis area. “We’re seeing less of the public activities like leafleting and highway banners. But clearly there is organized hate activity here and statewide, and we need to pay attention to it,” Aroesty notes.

A big part of the problem, she believes, is that there’s a lot more political divisiveness now. “Everyone’s into labels and I don’t like it. But I don’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that at the ADL we are all a bunch of liberals. If there’s one thing we hammer away at, it’s ‘Don’t Stereotype People,'” she says. “That’s the biggest change I’ve seen over the past few years, us-versus-them, whether it’s religion, politics, sexual preference or color.”

Gedlu Metaseria, executive director of the African Mutual Assistance Association of Missouri, has worked with Aroesty on racial diversity programs for several years. “Karen is uncompromising on anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate crimes. She is a role model for people of all races and she brings positive leadership to our city and state,” he says. “And I don’t know how she handles it. She’s everywhere! Truly a tireless person! I could write books and books about her.”

When she’s not busy defending the faith at the ADL, Aroesty serves on the St. Louis County Human Relations commission and the boards of the National Council for Community Justice and the Diversity Awareness Partnership. She also continues to volunteer at Shaare Zedek where she chairs the personnel committee. Florence Cohen, the synagogue’s board chairperson, says, “Karen has an amazing ability to speak with knowledge on subjects she’s well versed in for the ADL or any Jewish cause. Karen can take a complex issue, like a bill in the Legislature, and succinctly tell you about it. As a result you can form an opinion and take action,” Cohen says. “I love to see her on TV when she speaks so fervently against injustice or on behalf of Israel and the Jewish community.”

In her downtime Aroesty enjoys listening to music and playing the classics on the piano, and spending time with her children. She hopes to travel more with them. “My family traveled a lot when I was younger and I think that has a lot to do with who I am,” she says. “People need to learn about the world, to get out of their comfort zone.”

Looking ahead, Aroesty says, “I see the League as a place I could stay for along time. I believe the issues will be similar but not exactly the same as today. But there will always be a need for education. Bias and organized hate and anti-Semitism will never go away. At the same time the League has been around for 90-plus years and also is not going away!”

Even if she should leave the League, Aroesty says she would continue to work in the realm of advocacy. “I hope I’ll always be able to speak for people who are not in a position to advocate for themselves,” she says.

Betsy Dennis: bridge-builder

In addition to heading the local chapter of the AJCommittee, Betsy Dennis has long-standing connections to the organization. In fact, her family, headed by prominent attorney and civic leader, the late Donald Gallop, received the AJCommittee’s prestigious Netzach Award in 1997. “That was such an honor,” Dennis says. “The Fox and Millstone families also have been Netzach recipients so we’re in very good company.”

Dennis became a lawyer like her father, although that was not her plan. She grew up in St. Louis, then earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Michigan and remained there for a year of graduate studies in environmental policy. She wanted to join the Peace Corps, but her parents discouraged that decision. Instead she worked for a nonprofit environmental group in Helena, Mont., and ended up Santa Barbara, Calif., as activities director at a resort. “I organized beach walks and parties and played tennis,” Dennis says. “I was going through ‘What do I really want to do with my life?'” She decided to try law school. “My dad was so excited so that was that,” she says.

After earning her J.D. at Duke University, Dennis returned to St. Louis and briefly practiced law at her father’s 70-person firm. Then she became the in-house attorney for Medicine Shoppes International for eight years. “I liked having just the one client and not being surrounded by lawyers,” she says.

In the meantime she met attorney Joel Dennis. They became engaged after six weeks and married after nine months. She returned to work briefly after her second daughter was born, then stayed home with her children for three years.

By then both Dennis and her husband had served on the AJCommittee board. Then in 2003 the former executive director unexpectedly announced her resignation. “The board asked me if I was interested in the job and I said yes,” Dennis says. At the job interview, she recalls, “They said they want someone who knows Jewish community and also knows the AJC. In that regard I definitely was qualified!”

Dennis finds her work at the AJCommittee endlessly fascinating. “At the AJC every day I get to be more educated and learn about Judaism and Israel,” she says. “What I think is so interesting is that the AJC takes various Jewish values and puts them into action. For example, take Tzelem Elohim, we are all created in the image of God. That would translate into honoring all human beings and taking care of the poor and sick. Or Mipnel darkle shalom, following the path of peace. That would mean building partnerships and coalitions, which is what we do all the time.”

Dennis also appreciates that the AJCommittee is often called “the State Department for the Jewish people,” because of its work representing Jewish rights internationally. In that regard, the St. Louis chapter recently hosted the Israeli counsel general from Chicago at several interfaith and interethnic events, as well as the former Indian ambassador to Israel, who met with Indian and Jewish students. “People were just blown away by this program,” Dennis says. “We all were amazed to learn there are about 5,000 Jews in India and that the typical Shabbat dinner is not challah and chicken, it’s goat curry and a flat bread.”

Dennis’ friend Maxine Mirowitz says, “Betsy’s beautiful nature is why she has so many connections to people. For the AJC it’s the perfect fit because she really is out in the community and puts herself forward to help, not just for her friends but for anyone. I admire her so much because she’s so brilliant in her work and has great common sense.”

In May Dennis attended the 100th anniversary celebration of the AJCommittee in Washington, D.C. where President George W. Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke. “What was so fascinating was the relationship the AJC has built with Germany over the last 59 years, just as it has with so many other countries,” Dennis says.

Currently Dennis says the St. Louis AJCommittee is involved in several projects with the local Hispanic community, as well as the Japanese and Chinese community and African-American groups. She’s also helping to plan an architectural tour of Jewish and Catholic sites in conjunction with the St. Louis Archdiocese and the Jewish Community Relation Council and developing next year’s St. Louis Interfaith Lecture Series for Christian and Jews, an AJCommittee tradition for more than 20 years.

Rev. James H. Purdy, Rector at St. Peters Episcopal Church, has worked with Dennis on the lecture series for years. “Betsy is a very talented woman with a passion for speaking truth through conversation and dialogue,” he says. “She brings to the AJC and to the community a breadth of vision and integrity and credibility.”

Notes Dennis’ friend Lori Serbin Lazday, “I think of Betsy as a daughter of the community that had the vision to put her in a leadership role that serves all of us to grow and learn.” Lazday adds, “What’s great is that Betsy uses her colleagues in the field as a sounding board. For example, a couple of years ago, the AJC was sending about 10 Latino representatives to Israel. Betsy called and said, ‘I know you invited my family to your sukkah and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve invited the entire Latino delegation too. They have come every year since!”

Away from the AJCommittee, Dennis is still very much connected to the Jewish community. She’s involved with Jewish Federation and her children attend the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy. The family belongs to B’nai Amoona. “I could be out every night of the week but the two girls at home want their mom,” she says. “My husband is a stay-at-home dad and that helps so much because my job is way beyond a full-time job.”

Regarding the short-term future, Dennis says her family is planning to visit Israel next summer. In the long run, she says, “My plan is to hang out here a while. It’s a good fit for me,” despite the job’s demands and challenges. “There’s more than enough to do. We certainly can’t do it all and sometimes it gets very frustrating, especially with a staff of two,” she says. “But what we do is pretty incredible work and our presence here is important. Locally I can see we do get results by working behind the scenes and building relationships one at a time.”