Working for justice honors Jewish tradition

Brian Herstig President and CEO, Jewish Federation of St. Louis

By Brian Herstig

Over Memorial Day weekend, unspeakable actions occurred in my adopted hometown of Minneapolis, shocking and horrifying many into a natural desire to speak out against the recurring injustices. While those statements may make people feel better, they often do little for those impacted. I learned firsthand about the difference between saying something in the moment and doing something to make a change on July 6, 2016, and a year later on July 6, 2017. 

The first was the day a Hispanic-American officer shot Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, five times at close range. This routine traffic stop in the Twin Cities turned deadly and was sent out on Facebook Live by Philando’s partner as it was happening. 

I was working at an organization in Minneapolis focused on breaking the cycle of generational poverty and dedicated to breaking down the structures that create inequality. Hundreds of organizations stepped forward with words and statements in the days that followed. They truly meant well.

A year later, at a remembrance of Philando, my organization was one of a dozen still standing in support of systemic change. A supporter turned to a group of us and said, “A lot of people showed up when this happened. Through the year they slowly dropped off. Those that are here now are the ones who get it and have been with us.” 


Justice is more than a word. It is an ideal upon which Judaism is founded. From the creation of the first civil court system by Moses (at the suggestion of his non-Jewish father-in-law) to the role Jews have played in every freedom movement in America (anti-slavery, workers’ rights, suffragette movement, civil rights, LGBT social movement), it permeates our culture. And we continue that important work today.

And at Jewish Federation of St. Louis, our work is founded on the idea of justice as well — whether it is ensuring that services are available for all or working to support the needs of the entire span of the diverse community and ecosystem we call the St. Louis Jewish community. 

In these difficult days we add our voices to those who decry the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, who join Philando and countless other individuals of color whose lives have been lost to police brutality. And we stand in solidarity with everyone, who work for justice every single day. 

The St. Louis Jewish community pursues justice through the work of organizations like Cultural Leadership, a 16-year-old youth education and leadership nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more just community by teaching middle and high school students about our country’s history of systematic oppression and then about the Jewish and African American vibrant cultures of resilience and enduring histories of resistance. They learn in order to become the next generation of agents of change. 

We pursue justice through our Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, which has partnered with the ADL Heartland Regional office for 15 years to facilitate the Law Enforcement and Society (LEAS) program. LEAS is one of the ways police explore the core values that influence their profession in an increasingly diverse society. 

And we pursue justice through the support of our partners like the ADL, NCJW STL, and particularly the Jewish Community Relations Council, which recently launched a Jewish Coalition on Racial Equity (JCRE) in order to create an inclusive and impactful approach for Jewish communal engagement on issues of racism and racial justice. JCRE will support current initiatives from partner organizations working with communities of color as well as provide opportunities for the Jewish community to reflect, learn, and discuss our individual and communal roles in dismantling systemic racism. 

We are an extremely diverse and complex community. No one organization can be everything or do everything needed. So we work together to each focus on what we are best at, allowing those with the experience and relationships to take on the necessary work in an increasingly complicated world.

We are extremely proud of the decades-long work of our community in the fight for an equitable society and fair opportunities for all. Has there been progress? Absolutely. Has it been fast enough or comprehensive — not even close. 

Some days we feel proud of the progress that has been made. On others we shake our heads and wonder if this world will ever change. In between is where the work and toil take place.  

At Federation, we understand that our role as an ally is to act with and for oppressed people. It is to listen and take action on behalf of others, not to lead. Being an ally to this change means doing the hard work of showing up, of examining our own biases, of understanding each other and their points of view, and of knowing how to best use our power and influence to pressure the system to make systemic change. Being an ally is a process of building understanding and trust. Being a true ally takes time. It also takes commitment.

And at Federation we are committed to continue to explore our role and what we, as an organizational ally, can do to address the systemic issues causing this and work to address them. 

Brian Herstig is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.