Hillel rabbi accepts new post heading Jewish food justice organization

Rabbi Andy Kastner

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Andy Kastner of St. Louis Hillel will be leaving his position effective at the end of this month to take a job with a foundation on the West Coast.

“The Talmud records the saying of Rabbi Chanina who remarked, ‘I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and the most from my students,’” wrote Kastner in a farewell letter to the campus community. “This has indeed been true for me and I am sincerely grateful to you for investing in my growth.”

Kastner, 33, has accepted a position in San Diego as founding director of the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship, a pilot program of the Leichtag Foundation focusing on sustainability and creating greater access to food.

The rabbi came to St. Louis during the summer of 2010. His three years here were marked by the creation of the Sukkah City STL art and design competition as well as various programs and classes he put together in organizations ranging from Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy to Bais Abraham Congregation. He also worked with Jewish students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and St. Louis University campuses.

Jacqueline Levey, executive director of the Washington University Hillel, noted Kastner was even on hand as part of an interfaith team to bless the new beer garden at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

“It was really wonderful to see him shine in the broader St. Louis community as well,” she said.

Levey said Kastner’s full-time position at the organization would be replaced, however, the search may not begin immediately.

“The hiring cycle for top rabbinic talent in the country has passed,” she said. “While we are still assessing our next step and anything is possible, it’s likely we’ll be commencing our search process next school year.”

Levey said the organization would be looking for someone with a pluralistic mindset and a deep commitment to Judaic learning as well as an ability to engage the campus community.

“In addition, we really want to have someone who is charismatic and dynamic who can really inspire our Jewish students who might not be as engaged in the Jewish community and might not have that extensive knowledge about what it means to be Jewish, about their background, so that they can see the rabbi and have someone they can go to for questions to learn and develop a relationship with,” she said.

Levey said that the next campus rabbi would have big shoes to fill.

“Andy has been a tremendous member of the Hillel staff by cultivating deep relationships with numerous students, facilitating a pluralistic Jewish environment for our entire campus and really coming up with a lot of innovative, amazing programs,” she said.

Kastner, a Cleveland native, said that St. Louis, his first posting out of rabbinical school, had been a special one, particularly since he and his wife, Leslie, both consider themselves Midwesterners.

“It’s been such an important place for my family to grow,” he said. “It’s really been such a delight to be in St. Louis. It’s a beautiful city. People have been so good to us.”

He said he’d been initially attracted to the Hillel job by the city’s vibrant cultural scene and its strong focus on the values of family and community.

There was also a more general attraction to working with the next generation. He said Jewish education professionals have really learned a great deal about engaging Millennials in community life.

“For many years, I’ve loved university environments,” he said. “I’ve lived in a few university towns. They’re places of growth, of asking questions, of change and challenge. Those broad cultural values drew me.”

Kastner said his interactions with students at Washington University didn’t disappoint.

“The students’ hunger for knowledge has really been impressive,” he said. “Students have a tremendous energy and appetite for knowledge and they explore that in a variety of ways as far as their academic pursuits as well as their many volunteer and co-curricular opportunities they engage in. They are deeply and broadly engaged in intellectual and spiritual pursuits.”

The rabbi and his family will depart St. Louis by the middle of next month, after which Kastner will guide the Leichtag initiative, where he will mentor young adult fellows aged 22-32.

Kastner and his wife have two children, Asher, 4, and Nora, 1.

“We’re going to miss him,” said Levey. “But we’re excited for him and his family to engage in this next chapter of their personal and professional lives.”