Jewish leaders remember impact, legacy of Bill Kahn

Then-Jewish Federation executive vice president Bill Kahn (left) is pictured with Thomas Green, then president of Federation, in this 1987 photo.

By Lynn Wittels and Andrew Rehfeld

St. Louis is a community built on the passion and vision of innovators. The recent passing of Bill Kahn reminds us of that. He leaves a legacy as not just a member of our community, but as a pillar of it.

Bill came to St. Louis in 1949 as a teen youth worker and stayed on, directing camp programs for six years.  Former Jewish Community Center Board Chair Marty Oberman remembers, “Bill was a special person. He was the consummate social work professional, but even above and beyond that, he was savvy and very much the diplomat. I think I’ll remember him mostly as someone who nurtured young people. I met him when I was a college student, and he made me feel important. It was just known that if you had a job at the St. Louis JCCA under Bill’s tutelage, you could go to any other Center in the country and get a job.”

Prominent lay leader Harvey Brown of RubinBrown agrees. “Bill Kahn was the powerhouse in the Jewish social services community. He had the ear of the most influential leaders in the community – he had a great personality, he was very persuasive and very charming.”

Bill’s impact went beyond social services. Newspaperman Bob Cohn, a longtime friend, articulates what Bill meant to the St. Louis community: “Bill was for the Jewish professional what Isadore Millstone was to Jewish lay leaders: He was truly one-of-a-kind.” Isadore and Bill worked together to establish what would become the largest centralized Jewish community campus in North America. This was unheard of at the time, and the campus became a model for the nation. “My grandfather felt the work the JCC accomplished locally and around the world could not have succeeded without Bill Kahn’s leadership,” says Bob Millstone, chairman of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. “My grandfather and many others told me about Bill’s incredible commitment to civil justice and passionate, inspiring leadership.”

However, what Bill might want to be most remembered for is his passion for work toward racial equality and human and civil rights. He fought for integration long before it was generally accepted. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Ala., and passionately spoke about civil rights issues before such matters were at the forefront of the St. Louis community on a broad scale.  

Large of stature and with an even bigger personality, Bill used those attributes to become a driving force behind the establishment of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.  Working with Holocaust survivors Leo and Sara Wolf and lay leader Tom Green, Bill brought the necessary energy to bring the Museum to life.  “He was my friend,” remembers Tom Green.  “We worked together on building the Museum and addressing matters in Israel. He convinced me to establish the Lubin-Green Foundation.  He was a great leader and a great person.”

In addition to his tremendous impact on St. Louis, Bill was asked to help several other Jewish communities, including Pittsburgh and New York, where he pulled together 130 boards in five boroughs to create a merger between the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York and United Jewish Appeal.  “Bill devoted a lifetime of service to the Jewish and larger communities in St. Louis, the United States and Israel,” says Barry Rosenberg (former president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis). “He had a deep passion for helping people in need and his work touched literally millions of people.”

Today, those Bill touched are remembering his achievements, celebrating his vision and giving their thoughts of support to the Kahn family. May his memory be for a blessing.