Demographic study, Next Gen leader part of Jewish Federation leader’s second-year plan

Jewish Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld is pictured at home in this Jewish Light file photo from 2012. Photo: Yana Hotter

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

What a difference a year makes.

That’s about how long Andrew Rehfeld has been at the helm of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, replacing Barry Rosenberg who had been in that position for 19 years. For the decade preceding Rehfeld’s appointment as President and CEO of Federation on Sept 1, 2012, he was an associate professor at Washington University teaching political science. Today, he is a politician of sorts as he advocates for Federation and the local Jewish community.

On Tuesday evening, Rehfeld, 47, will be front and center as he delivers a “state of the union” type address at Federation’s annual meeting. In a wide-ranging interview last week, Rehfeld sat down to discuss the past year as well as to outline some of his plans and goals for the future, which include moving forward on a full-blown demographic study of the local Jewish community. Thanks to the seed money from Harvey and Terry Hieken, Federation has already put forth a request for proposals. Rehfeld hopes more funding will continue so the results of the study — the first major one since 1995 — will be ready in 2015.

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Another one of Rehfeld’s goals: To make Federation one of the best, most dynamic places to work in St. Louis within the next five years.  

Has the job met your expectations?

I expected this to be like drinking from a fire hose and it has been.

What is your Number One goal for your second year in this job and how do you plan to accomplish it? I’m in the process of narrowing it to five goals. There are a number of thing that are important to me.

1. Federation has to be in a position of building on — and growing — a collaborative space with synagogues. Synagogues remain the single most important set of institutions in which the primary motivator of people’s involvement is their Jewish identity. We have at times had a strained relationship with them for reasons I’m trying to still understand. But unless we (are more collaborative) the community will suffer.

2. The Next Gen space. Thanks to the generous support of the Staenberg Family Foundation, we have opened up a search for director of Next Gen work. We’re in process of interviewing and coordinating that position. Getting someone on staff and moving that forward (will allow us to) come up with tangible projects that can help engage the next generation in Jewish life.

3. Demographic study. You need the data to know where and how to proceed to build the kind of community you want.

4. Continuing work and strengthening our ties to Israel.

5. The disabilities initiative. Federation has started a disability assessment of how to best provide space in our community so disable Jews can have full access to Jewish life. We have serious needs for senior housing. We are working closely to support the efforts of our Covenant/Chai facility in accessing their physical needs and making sure they have the kind of space for housing for seniors, and also Crown Center, which is expanding. Of course all of this depends on our ability to raise the funds we need so that our agencies and programs can be met.

How is the organized Jewish community, acting through Federation, best able to strengthen Jewish engagement of folks in the community? 

1. To do what Federation has historically done so well, which is to assess the needs of the community, to raise the resources and then to allocate to where the need is.

2. To convene the community to address those needs. When we talk about planning and assessing those needs we don’t do so in isolation. We want and need community input.

3. The demographic study. We’re going to do it not on our own and not simply to raise the resources we need but we’re going to do it in conjunction with our agencies and synagogues by asking them what are your data needs. What do you need to know to do your work better? That’s the kind of value Federation adds to the community.

Building, securing and cultivating a strong St. Louis Jewish community was your top goal when you took over a year ago. How would you assess your progress in accomplishing that goal so far?

We’ve made some significant advances. For example, the kind of infrastructure support that we are providing for our institutions. An example is the supporting role we played with the Jewish Community Center last year with Bank of America (helping the JCC retire its loan) . . . the work we did in partnership with Jewish Family & Children’s Services in securing funding for the food pantry, plus we allocated over $8½ million to our agencies.  Another example is the excitement coming out of our innovation grants program we started this year. In the Jewish programmatic world there are individuals who have ideas but don’t have a place to get them expressed so we had an open grant process. We were hoping for 12-15 applications, we got 73. The great news is the kind of dynamism that we are just scratching the surface with here in the community. To be able to build on that is going to be a key part of the foundation for moving forward.

Federation has, and will continue to be, a community service organization in the sense that we are here to service the agencies we support. We are currently building a needs assessments to see where we can be most helpful. In an area such as accounting services, for instance, we can offer our agencies, and increasingly our synagogues, accounting services and basic financial services so that they don’t have to do the kind of work an institution such as Federation could do for them instead.

As CEO you’re at the forefront of the Federation’s ability to raise money for the community’s needs. Do you like being involved in that role?

Quite a bit. Fundraising is really about relationship building. One thing that I think is really valuable about Federation is that it provides a way for people to give Jewishly — to give to Jewish things and Jewish purposes and to give to anyone in need.

How are you adapting Federation’s fundraising to changing community needs?

Two things are changing. Number One is the needs in our community and Number Two is the way people think about giving.  It used to be the needs were immigration, which is how Federation got started, and then the Holocaust, the State of Israel and Soviet Jewry. Today the needs are with Jewish identity building. There are so many options not to be Jewish. Our fundraising needs are to speak to those core issues. We still have basic social service needs. In terms of adapting to it, to be able to get to know our donors well enough to be clear as to what we provide that is added value for them. To understand that by giving to Federation, they are giving to all. It’s not just the adapting needs it’s also the adapting donors. We are beginning to move into e-philanthropy space, where we will see more e-philanthropic efforts whether it’s through crowd sourcing of grant or projects to email delivery or mobile devices or texting because our donor base is getting used to having multiple points of access to giving.

When we spoke last year you stressed the need to focus on building Jewish identity among young Jews, particularly during one’s teenage and college years. How have you gone about doing this?

We have incredible resources here serving the Next Gen space, including CAJE, Hillel, Chabad, Moishe House, Next Dor, and the many programs offered by the JCC and synagogues. There are two areas we need to grow on — providing community assessment and coordination of those services to utilize the efficiencies of scale and retaining and attracting young professionals into the St. Louis area. We have begun to collaborate with civic programs, whether with the city of St. Louis or regional businesses, to figure out how we can affect positive change for the region. This is important not just for the Jewish community but the entire region.

What are you most proud of your first year? 

The relationships that we are beginning to build with the community as we move ahead. We’ve begun to make headway in terms of Federation being an organization here to help and support our community. Much of my year has been spent learning, listening, assessing and evaluating how we can structurally align the Federation with the needs of our community. Federation is like a quilt of different patches. We’re the ones that assess where the holes are in the quilt and  . . . It’s up to us to maintain the integrity of the quilt. That takes strong partnerships with our institutions and agencies.

What are your main frustrations with the job? 

The slow pace of change. By the same token, there are different cultures to contend with – a different culture of a new CEO within the organization and a new CEO outside of the (more insular Jewish) community learning the language of this work. This really is a political job. I expected that, but I am reflective on how much, despite my study of politics, this is new and there has been a learning curve.

In what ways has your past experience and expertise helped you, and in what ways not so much? 

I have a decade of experience standing in front of people talking about things I really believe in, articulating and explaining them. That has been a highly transferable skill. I learned at the university you could always take one step forward and do what you want if it coordinates with other people. But if you want to take steps two and three, you’d better make sure everyone is onboard. I learned that in this job and then some. You can’t go forward unless you have people with you. Also, an area I had studied and was very involved with was strategic decision making. What we do with any kind of community work is not just think how do we get what we want right now but rather take a longer approach. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not you focus on the small things or whether you’re in it for the whole game. Coming in here and putting that in practice has been really terrific. 

As for my past expertise not helping me, let’s just say the freneticness, the non-stop nature of everything, has been a cultural shift. But it’s been exhilarating.

Look ahead 10 years, and tell me how you think the Jewish community will look similar to and different from what we see today?

So much of it depends upon on the economic growth of the region. There is no way around it. If the economic growth goes in the direction I believe it has turned and is now heading, it is a very bright future for the St. Louis Jewish community because it’s a very bright future for St. Louis. It’s one in which we find our niche growing in the tech and innovative space, particularly in biotech area and plant sciences. We have competitive advantages. I think we have to be very sensitive to the fact that we may have lost a generation, that’s a demographic question we will see with this study. If we have, the need that concerns me most is that of orphaned seniors — those people who are 60 and above and are approaching their senior years without their children in town. It’s not necessarily that they are financially strapped right now but with life expectancy growing and without the kind of informal support of a kid who drops by for coffee or dinner or takes their parent to a movie or theater you lose something in quality of life. Even if we get an influx or more people to stay in the community now, we have a population here that is likely without their kids in town and we need to be very sensitive to that. 

Do you miss academia and teaching? 

I feel like every day that I come to work I am teaching and explaining things. 

Your two-year leave of absence with Washington University will be up in a year. What can we expect a year from now – will you return to your job as a political science professor there, will you resign from the university to stay in your job as Federation CEO and President or will you look to extend your leave with the university?

I’d love to extend my leave at the university for another 20 years. I am really thriving in this job. I find coming to work exciting and challenging. I find the work we do holy and in service to others. It’s exactly the kind of work I wanted to do in my life right now. Whether I stay here or not is not in my own hands. I’m here in service to the community and at the will of the board and board chair. It has been a joy and a pleasure. You asked me before what was the most unexpected thing. Before I coming here I was told beware of your lay leadership, this was from people far away, who didn’t know the community. The single greatest gift I have had is the support in the sense of honest feedback, both positive and negative, and their dedication to me in supporting the community. It has been a learning experience of the very best kind.

Is there a scenario that would make you consider leaving?

If I came to view that I was being detrimental or harming the community. 

How has the job been on your family? 

Really good overall.  The upside is that my kids see me engaged in service to other people. Whereas before I studied justice and human rights, now seeing me do this is much more tangible and I think has had a profound influence on them. The job has demanded more time away from home. I’m sorry about that except that they were both at the end of high school (daughter Emma is now a college freshman, son Hoben is a high school senior) so the timing was good.