ADL leader Karen Aroesty: Turning the page on a career fighting hate

Karen Aroesty

KAREN AROESTY

Having devoted fully half of my adult life to professional and lay leadership of the Anti-Defamation League’s work in our region, it is time for me to pursue other challenges in the arena of social and community justice. It is a departure laced with sadness as a lengthy chapter in my life ends, but with tremendous satisfaction in the work we have accomplished together. 

With my work for ADL coming to an end May 31, I am looking forward to the challenges we will face and successes we can achieve for the benefit of our region.

I came to ADL as a member of the regional advisory board in May 1995. Five years later, when our local staff leader departed, I visited with ADL’s iconic leader, Abe Foxman, in the group’s New York headquarters across from the United Nations. It was the week of the annual U.N. General Assembly, and my appointment was sandwiched between visits by the Chinese and Spanish delegations. At the close of the visit, Abe said, “Give me a reason to come to St. Louis,” and I was hired to head our region’s ADL office.

With my professional and lay ADL colleagues, we were able to affect many important and positive changes. Legislatively, ADL led coalitions that saw passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; established the Missouri Commission on Holocaust Education and Awareness; passed a bill to ban cross burning, and legislation to punish companies for unfair trade practices in life insurance policies for those who had or would travel to Israel.  

We have been important partners for Jewish communal leaders across the region, in intergroup and inter-religious relations. We have gathered in response to enormous challenges. From 9/11 and the subsequent spike in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we worked through the economic downturn of 2008, to the heartrending sadness of the Overland Park JCC murders in 2014. 

We turned to activism following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and returned to community protection after the desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery and the bomb threats of 2017. 

In between these emotional spikes, we responded to hundreds of cases of anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, managed quietly in support of frightened victims. The ability of this region to come together to build community again and again has been extraordinary.

It has been my privilege to learn from dedicated regional and national board leaders, chairs without whom the work would not have been possible: Ken Kranzberg, David Grebler (z’l), Stuart Berkowitz, Howard Loiterstein, Michele Kopolow, John Wallach, Robbye Frank, Aaron Vickar and now Jenn Schwesig. With strong board representation in St. Louis and beyond, we built lasting credibility and impact throughout ADL’s Heartland region. With the A World of Difference Institute, the second such ADL project in the nation, we innovated long-term, impactful anti-bias learning with important community players: the St.  Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, the Kaplan-Feldman Holocaust Museum and so many different centers of education in the region.

Our partnerships with law enforcement served to build readiness for coping with hate-based crimes. We lead the work of one of the few active U.S. Attorney’s Hate Crimes Task Forces in the country and have carried it forward through the transitions of nine U.S. attorneys in Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. This effort furthers partnerships with law enforcement to increase needed responsiveness to hate crime and bias, offers expert resources on extremism, and educates police on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia. 

I could always count on so many in this community to be allies, facilitators, educators, program chairs and funders with increasing generosity. So many in the region committed their time, their hearts and their expertise to positive impact with our office, and in particular over the past 13 years, with my tenacious education partner, Tabari Coleman.  

ADL has long described its mission as “not the work of a day,”  and I’m sentimental about change. But I’m connected by my heart and my head to justice and equity. With ongoing community responsibilities for the St. Louis County Human Relations Commission and others, I will support the work of ADL and the Jewish community in the region, and we will continue in different forms to do good work together. 

Thank you for your continuing dedication to the ADL and to fighting hate for good.

Karen Aroesty has served as the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for the past two decades. She plans to step down from the post in May.