Celebrating a Visionary

By Jewish Light Editorial

 “If you would see the man’s monument, look around.”

— Translation of Latin inscription near the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, London

William “Bill” Kahn was genetically “hard-wired” to devote his entire adult life to fighting for  social justice and to ensure that there would always be a vital and dynamic  future for the Jewish community.  Kahn, who for 20 years was the executive director of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis and guided it from a cluster of weaker agencies into the finest facility of its kind in the nation, and who was the professional head of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis for five years, was taken from our midst last Thursday, just a few days shy of what would have been his 88th birthday on July 3.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Bill Kahn’s role in the history and growth of the St. Louis Jewish community. As the executive director of the JCC (then  called the JCCA), Kahn took the reins of the agency to oversee sweeping changes and unprecedented growth of the JCC and the Jewish community as a whole.

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Kahn and the late Isadore E. Millstone, the two larger-than-life-size leaders, worked closely throughout their many years in Jewish communal service and philanthropy.  Millstone had the vision to acquire the 110-acre site at Lindbergh and Schuetz to build a new Jewish Community Center to replace the old Young Mens/Women’s Hebrew Association on Union and Enright in the city of St. Louis.  Kahn oversaw the construction  of the then state-of-the-art Carlyn H. Wohl Building on what is now called the Millstone Jewish Community Campus.

Kahn accomplished so much during his unparalleled professional career, but was especially proud of having worked with Thomas Green, Leo Wolf, the late Sam Goldstein and the late Donn Lipton and others to make the dream of a world-class St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center a reality.

While Kahn usually presented a warm smile, a handshake and a pat on the back, he could be as forceful as President Lyndon  B. Johnson when he was trying to win support for a project in which he believed. The space reserved for the Holocaust Museum in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building sat empty for months and months—ostensibly for budget reasons.  Kahn, who had repeatedly promised the local Holocaust Survivor community that they would live to see a Museum and Learning Center, did not hesitate to “lean in” to people with his huge physical frame, look them in the eye and persuade them to do the right thing.  He was an irresistible force who could overcome any “immovable object” when it came to fundraising and  gaining support for necessary projects.  

Yes, in keeping with Jewish values, Kahn always greeted people with a warm and friendly manner.  But he was also willing to deploy the forceful side of his personality to gain support for projects he considered vital for the future of the Jewish community, such as the Holocaust Museum.

Today, years after the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center opened its doors, over 20,000 high school and college students, along with adult groups, visit the facility each year to learn from the exhibits and other resources there about the greatest calamity ever to befall the Jews of the world. 

As executive director of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis starting in 1986, he led with his usual dynamism and creativity until his retirement as executive vice president emeritus in 1990.

Kahn also earned Jews United for Justice’s Heschel-King Award for his heroic role in marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights work, including the creation of an annual observance of Dr. King’s birthday on the Millstone Campus. At the JCC, Kahn hosted Dr. King’s appearance as the Liberal Forum speaker, held at United Hebrew Congregation to accommodate the huge audience.

Under Kahn’s leadership, the Covenant House Apartments for the elderly on the Millstone Campus and the Parkview Towers Seltzer Building in University City came into being.   Working with lay leadership such as former JCC and Federation President Harris J. Frank, Kahn helped bring about  the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.  Other facilities Kahn brought into being include the JCC Adult Day Care, the Susan Jacobs Day Care Center and the headquarters of the Vaad-Hoeir Mikveh, along with acquiring the site for Camp Sabra in the Ozarks.  All of these incredible accomplishments  paved the way for Michael Staenberg to step up to the plate to provide the funding and leadership for the Staenberg Family Complex on the Millstone Jewish Community Campus, which has become a model for Jewish communities across North America.

Yes, as noted above in regard to Christopher Wren, if you want to find a monument to Bill Kahn’s legacy, stand anywhere on the Millstone Jewish Community Campus and just “look around.”

Bill Kahn was a true community treasure and his memory will always be an inspiration and for a blessing to the Jews of St. Louis and communities around the world which he served so well.