Philip Deitch: Waging a lifelong fight against injustice

Kristi Foster
2016 Unsung Hero Philip Deitch. Photo: Kristi Foster

BY MARGARET GILLERMAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When Philip Deitch was in junior high school, his father came home from work one night after meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He asked Philip and his sister what they would do to fight racial injustice.

So, in the eighth grade, Philip Deitch founded a Civil Rights Club at his school.

Ever since, activism and respect for diversity have been an integral part of his life. This year marks almost a half-century of his involvement in activist causes, and his passion for them as well as his energy seem undiminished. 

David Lander, a founder of Jews United for Justice who has worked closely with Deitch, says: 

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“Whether the victim of injustice is poor, of color or gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, Philip is in the forefront of efforts to combat that injustice.”

Deitch is “working hard to help the Jewish community be a real partner in efforts to implement the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission,” Lander said.

Deitch, who lives in Tower Grove East neighborhood, says the Ferguson report was important “for the community as a whole. … We need to be living in a community that believes in justice and provides justice.”

In recent years, Deitch also has been what Lander called the “social justice photographer in residence.”

Deitch photographs community action and social action events as well as other events for major cultural institutions and in the Jewish community. He calls that being a “docuvist” – an activist who both documents the event and takes part in it.

“In Judaism, we are taught to bear witness,” he said.

 People remark on all he does for causes, but Deitch said, “I don’t see it as anything special. That’s just how I live my life. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

 Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Deitch credits his parents and grandparents for inspiring him to lead a Jewish life of activism.

He went to Hebrew School at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn before moving with his parents and younger sister to Long Island, where he became a bar mitzvah in a Conservative shul.

Deitch was inspired to political activism by his lawyer father’s work with labor unions and civil rights and his mother’s community service, which included working for the Equal Rights Amendment. Harry and Jeanette Deitch  died six weeks apart when Philip was in his 20s. He later became involved helping the Komen Race for the Cure because of his mother’s breast cancer.

“My parents and grandparents were just great people,’’ he said. “I grew up hearing stories about my grandparents coming from czarist Russia because of the pogroms, and I grew up seeing  photographs of the concentration camps that my father took as a GI shortly after the camps were liberated. I have his photographs and journals and they are a great inspiration.”

Deitch said he’s also “very proud” of his sister Marna, who works as a sign language interpreter in several schools in the Los Angeles area.

Their father’s World War II buddy Abe Koket had Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and was like an uncle to Deitch. He was such an influence that Deitch started working to help people with disabilities while he was a student at Oceanside High School. He started a high school Youth for Easter Seals program.

Deitch’s volunteerism for prison advocacy in high school landed him on the front page of a New York newspaper, he recalled. Active in United Synagogue Youth, Deitch also helped organize an all-night vigil for Soviet Jewry, which he said predated the annual vigils at the United Nations.

After studying business and political science in college, Deitch earned a master’s degree in health services administration.

Deitch said he was certified as a U.S. Army Lay Leader while at Walter Reed Medical Center and, after moving to St. Louis, completed clinical pastoral education (CPE) to be a hospital chaplain. He worked in Pennsylvania as an assistant hospital administrator before moving to St. Louis 23 years ago.

Deitch works as a financial adviser here and has been happily associated with Central Reform Congregation,  proud to have been the first openly gay vice president of CRC.

“Everything I do, I do as a Jewish gay man,” he said.

 Deitch’s extensive contributions include advocating for people with disabilities and for minority communities including LGBT. He also is a founder and vice chairman of the U.S. Attorneys Hate Crimes Task Force for Eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Deitch has been active in diversity training and dialogue groups. Among the non-profits for which he has led diversity training are National Conference of Christians and Jews St. Louis, the Diversity Awareness Partnership, Focus St. Louis, the YWCA (Witnessing Whiteness Program), and the Anti-Defamation League, Echoes and Reflections Holocaust training program.

He was instrumental in forming a dialogue group involving members of CRC and African-American churches.

Deitch was on the Jewish Community Relations Council board when Marilyn Ratkin was on staff. Ratkin recalls that in 1998, as part of a Jewish Council on Public Affairs national race-relations initiative, JCRC established an African-American Jewish Dialogue Group. 

“I called on Philip to help me, and the rest is history,” she said. “This group has been meeting for 18 years. … Philip continues to be part of the glue that keeps the group active and well-grounded in its core principles.”

 Like Lander, Ratkin appreciates Deitch’s willingness to photograph events.

He “is always there, smiling when you need him, one-on-one, or to fight a cause for hundreds,” Ratkin wrote. “Dayenu, that would be enough, but Philip has recently honed a new talent as a photographer.” 

Deitch said he’s very grateful to receive the Unsung Heroes award, “especially for my work for the Jewish community and work that links it to the larger community.”

Ellen Alper, executive director of National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section, who also serves with Deitch on the Faith and Labor Council, said: “He is the epitome of what this (Unsung Hero) award means. He shares his time and talents without expectations of getting anything in return. Philip is a tireless advocate …not for recognition, but simply because it is the right thing to do.”


Philip Deitch

Age: 61

Home: St. Louis, Tower Grove East

Occupation:   Financial planner, Ameriprise Financial Advisors

Fun Fact: He has been written up twice in the Congressional Record for his social justice projects related to AIDs awareness and disability services. He also has photographed or met every U.S. president and most vice presidents beginning with Richard Nixon.