Koster: Our shared values, faith unite us

Chris Koster

By Chris Koster

Editor’s Note: Chris Koster delivered a speech at the U. City Shul Gala on Nov. 18. This commentary was drawn from that speech.

By Chris Koster

Many years ago, I grew up in this neighborhood [North and South Road near Delmar Boulevard], and I’d walk by this synagogue as your community gathered on Saturday mornings. I was an 8-year-old on my way to Pete’s Hobby Shop, across the street, back in a day when University City parents still allowed their children to travel more than 300 yards beyond their watchful gaze. I was a Catholic school boy from Our Lady of Lourdes, and as any 8-year-old would be in the early 1970s, when I walked by the U. City Shul, I was conscious of the differences of dress and traditions that can separate communities, even within the same neighborhoods.

Tonight, my soon-to-be stepson Jude is making his first visit to a synagogue. And I suppose tonight he is equally quizzical about what this place is and why it is so important.

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Something that everyone in this Orthodox room noticed as soon as I introduced him, but something Jude does not realize even as I speak, is that Jude has a Hebrew name, a Jewish name.  Unbeknownst to him, the roots of his name go back much farther than Paul McCartney’s 1968 No. 1 single, farther back than the martyrdom of Judas Thaddaeus, patron saint of impossible causes. The origins of his name connect through thousands of years of the Hebrew language and translate loosely with the concepts of “praise” and “the praised one.”

Just a minute ago, Jude was an 11-year-old boy who looked across a room of cultural differences.  An hour from now, buckled in the back seat of our car, I hope he’ll travel home scratching his head over cultural similarities he’d never contemplated before.  

In a very small way, that story represents the reason we are here:   to stand up for an institution, the U. City Shul, that communicates similarities over differences and lifts up the goodness in our nature above our human failings.

Over 22 years in public life, I worked as a district attorney, a state senator, attorney general and, finally, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee. During that time, I tried my best to work alongside you and many other fine people of Missouri to highlight similarities over differences and bring together the people of our state. I worked with rural and urban populations on shared issues of economic development; police and minority communities — in the wake of Ferguson — on issues of criminal justice; and across religious and cultural divides in an effort to promote general understanding and the common good.  

Five times in the last 10 years, I traveled to Israel to study the country and learn from its government leaders. My fiancé Jennifer and I consider those trips to be among the greatest blessings of our lives.  

Sometimes in my career, I was successful at bringing people together but, unfortunately, often I was not.

My time in elective office spanned from 1994 until 2016.  Ironically, it was during these years, I would argue, when division as a political strategy became a more potent tool for victory than our efforts to foster unity were able to combat.

We live in a time when the levers of division are all around us. Social media, 24-hour cable television, political gerrymandering and the tech industry’s ability to predict my next Google search have taken the analysis of our differences to unprecedented heights. These new levers have proven far more successful at exploding and exploiting our differences than they have at illuminating our similarities.

When I look back at my campaign of 2016, I admit my frustration and even sadness that a campaign that aspired to “bring people together to build roads and fund schools” would lose so badly to a campaign that actually used a machine gun and an exploding barrel to illustrate its promise to “blow up Jefferson City as we know it.”  Yet it is the world we live in.

The consequences of 20 years of division hardly need to be articulated. Our political dialogue has descended into Babel.  School shootings, something completely unknown when I walked by this building on the way to Pete’s Hobby Shop, now occur with metronomic regularity. And a reignited anti-Semitism, culminating in the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue, remind us the world’s oldest hatred can flourish even here, even in America, if our differences continue to daily win out over our common spirit.

How it breaks our hearts that this Orthodox dinner must be guarded by local police.

And so we try to answer young Jude’s question: Why are we here tonight? Why is this place so important?

The U. City Shul is a place that emphasizes unity, family, tradition and faith.  

Jude, as you look around this room, your first time in a synagogue, what you see are people who passionately believe that unified families, communication of tradition and faith in God are the best tools human beings have against the forces that divide us. And this building is where these families come together to share that experience.

This synagogue has existed in various incarnations for 130 years. It was started by a small group of Jewish Russian immigrants in 1889. When it needed new life, it was resurrected in the 1990s by Charles Deutsch and Rabbi Elazar Grunberger.  Today, it is led with heart and compassion by Rabbi Menachem Tendler.  

And tonight, we’ve come together to prepare this building for the next generation, so there is a place where we can communicate similarities over differences, and lift the goodness in our nature above our human failings.

Jude leaves here tonight, a Catholic boy who attends a Baptist school, newly pondering a Hebrew name.  

I leave here tonight honored by your kindness and encouraged by your commitment to invest in fundamental things that unite us as St. Louisans and people of faith, even as the storms of division swirl around us.

Former Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is senior vice president of corporate services with Centene Corp., a health care company.