Build on unifying response to cemetery ordeal

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Andrew Rehfeld

Last week an estimated 2,500 individuals gathered to show the world that St. Louis would not tolerate senseless acts of violence, particularly those aimed at minorities.  The desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery was a signal event for our community and the response was heartwarming. 

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis is working actively with the leadership of the cemetery to support them in managing the unprecedented international attention that followed the event.  We will be conducting security reviews with them and our other community cemeteries and making sure the dollars that were raised from multiple sources get to work as soon as possible.  

Sadly, among this demonstration of unity and support there is now a terrible rumor circulating that the Jewish Community of St Louis is shunning contributions by the Muslim community. It is false and despicable. 

Let me explain. 

In the wake of the cemetery vandalism last week a number of fundraising efforts began, including at least two very specifically from the Islamic community outside of St. Louis.

Our community is grateful for any support for a safe and secure Jewish St Louis. I have very publicly expressed my thanks in a general way for these efforts, noting the contributions by our Muslim brothers and sisters at my public remarks during the interfaith vigil in St. Louis. And I have reinforced this in every interview I have given to the media. 

But it is true that the Federation did not publicly name any specific effort being undertaken on our community’s behalf beyond the general note of thanks. 

Why — at this point — did we only thank these efforts in the broadest terms without specifically mentioning the names of the other charities?

Sadly, one common phenomenon of crisis fundraising is that it is a marketplace of deceit. False charities open up that have no oversight to take advantage of people’s desire to give and then scam them in one way or another. The Jewish Federation should not promote any specific effort until they have established a clear relationship and partnership, and can vouch for the funds being raised in their name.  

Now that the intensity of the crisis has passed the Federation is in the process of responding to other groups to help them get their donor’s funds to work. I have been in contact already with prominent efforts in the Islamic community outside of St Louis. Our conversations always begin with the strongest words of thanks and gratitude and a presumption that these efforts are honest and above board. 

And this process works both ways.  We are now working through a process to help these charities manage the transfer of funds in a manner that maintains their confidence in us, to make sure that they know that their dollars go to real projects in St Louis as well. 

This is what responsible philanthropic management looks like on both sides. 

We will continue to work together in a spirit of collaborative partnership with any group. And we will be delighted to announce and celebrate those gifts and efforts—very publicly by name—when this process is completed. 

What we do not need is to turn a moment of tremendous unity into division because of an uncharitable response from those who insist on viewing others with suspicion and always presuming the worst in people’s motivations. 

Let me state once again how grateful our community is to all support—from the thousands who came to clean and pay respect, to the multiple funding efforts from other Muslims, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and many many others. We will continue to build strong partnerships with all who seek to find common ground and in a manner that is responsible and respectful of all. That is what last week was about. And that is what we must continue to do. 

Last week the St. Louis region came together in a remarkable show of unity, to stand against anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism.  We “named it” and called it unacceptable.  And we “condemned it” and committed to not tolerating it.  Now we must “do something about it.”  

As a first step, let me suggest treating each other with charity, avoiding the constant speculation about motives, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt.  That is a good way to create a foundation on which the collective purpose to which we all joined last week might be continued for a very long time ahead.