Rehfeld at 5 years: Looking back but mostly forward

Andrew Rehfeld, shown speaking at a Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery rededication event  in August, began as Jewish Federation President/CEO in 2012. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Here is a truism about Andrew Rehfeld: You can take the academic out of the university but you can’t take the academic out of the academic. 

In other words, there is no such thing as a simple answer with Rehfeld, who has been President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis since 2012. He came to the position from Washington University, where he was an associate professor of political science with a secondary appointment in law. 

Rehfeld, who is 51, the father of two and married to Dr. Miggie Greenberg, a psychiatrist, is nothing if not thorough when asked questions he feels deserve a multifaceted explanation. He is a thinker. And a listener. He can be straightforward one minute and strategic the next in the way he not only answers questions but also tackles issues. 

Over the past five years, Rehfeld has garnered many admirers as Federation chief, both in the St. Louis Jewish community and elsewhere. Nevertheless, there are tremendous challenges in the complex job, among them issues related to Jewish engagement and philanthropy as well as Israel and anti-Semitism. Rehfeld understands that regardless of what he does, or doesn’t do, some will disagree with his statements and tactics. That’s just part of the landscape of his position with the Federation.  

Who he is, what he’s about

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“Andrew has a big heart and a lot of passion, but I think the driving force that generates his energy and focus is a real rigorous, almost demanding, intellect,” says Jacob Solomon, President/CEO of The Greater Miami Jewish Federation for 26 years. “He also has a huge appetite for learning and growing and a burning desire to do things both well and right.”

Solomon has gotten to know Rehfeld through the large cities executive group of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which represents 148 Jewish Federations and 300 independent Jewish communities. Members of the executive group, consisting of top Federation leaders in roughly 20 of JFNA’s largest cities, meet or speak to one another on a regular basis. 

Naomi Adler, CEO of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, is also part of the group.  Like Rehfeld, she is — relatively speaking — a federation newbie, having served in her position for 3½ years. She says she looked to Rehfeld for guidance after a Jewish cemetery in her community was desecrated less than a week after a similar incident took place earlier this year at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City.

“Andrew became a resource as to how best to deal with the outpouring of support as well as emotion,” said Adler. “His advice was stellar in terms of reaching out to elected officials and dealing with all the media attention.

He gave me great suggestions as to how to handle the situation as well as remediate it.”

Those who know and work with him talk a lot about his intellect and ability to connect with people. Former Jewish Federation of St. Louis Board Chairman Harvey Wallace, who worked closely with Rehfeld, says he is “a quick study and absorbs information well,” adding, “so many important positions come at him through a fire hose.”

Wallace said prioritizing which issues to address immediately and which to put on the back burner can be a challenge for any Federation leader, particularly one who is eager to use the agency’s resources to help solve problems in the community. 

Whenever problems come to his attention, no matter how small, Wallace said, “Andrew tends to be concerned. He wants everyone to be happy, so if there is a problem he wants to weigh in and see how Federation can fix it.” 

Studying the study

Not long after Rehfeld took the helm, Federation commissioned a $300,000 demographic study in 2014 — the first in nearly two decades — to find out what the Jewish community in St. Louis looked like. The study found that while more people in St. Louis identify as Jewish, a large number of these people are not involved in the Jewish community and more Jews are likely to be intermarried, compared to the previous study in 1995. 

“The (new) study helped identify who we are as a Jewish community and where the points of access were working, where they weren’t working and where we had growth opportunities,” said Rehfeld. “Since then we’ve used (the study) to strategically position ourselves to provide those points of access.”

He cites the integration of CAJE (Central Agency for Jewish Education) into the Federation umbrella as one example of “taking advantage of our shared capacities rather than building redundancies.” From that marriage came Federation’s Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series, which brings speakers to St. Louis to address topics of Jewish interest. In addition to Federation’s own programs, congregations and Jewish agencies can submit up to three speaker programs for consideration, and Federation will help fund and publicize them. 

“This came out of the idea that congregational rabbis were spending money for programs and couldn’t get much audience,” said Rehfeld. “We (Federation) are looking at where there are gaps in Jewish education and helping the community to fill those gaps.”

Rehfeld maintains that the St. Louis Jewish community operates some of the best early childhood centers in the region. “So we begin by supporting and expanding what’s already there and also look for opportunities that aren’t there,” he said. “We are in the process of accessing the need for early childhood infrastructure east of I-170, which is where we are seeing our community move back into. 

“Additionally, we have invested in a small community center space in Tower Grove because there is a naturally occurring Jewish community there — one group using it is called Ashreinu — they need infrastructure in Tower Grove that was not being provided.”

Rehfeld says perhaps the biggest implication of the 2014 community study was questioning whether Federation’s strategic priorities — put in place in 2010, two years before Rehfeld came onboard — were still the right ones. Federation has since drafted a new strategic plan to be implemented in 2018, and is asking for community feedback at town hall meetings (the next one is 9:30 a.m. Dec. 3 at Congregation Shaare Emeth).

“Our prior strategic priorities were really focused on Next Gen, families with young children and what’s going to happen to the kids,” said Rehfeld. “One of the big changes in the (proposed) strategic plan is the commitment to build a vibrant St. Louis community for all of us here and now. That includes the kinder [children] but it says dropping them off at Hebrew school is not an achievement of our goals. However, jointly going to an adult education class when your kids are at Hebrew school is. 

“So the question also becomes, ‘What do we need to do to reinvigorate adult Jewish engagement?’” 

A community connector

Rehfeld isn’t just talking about what Federation can do within the local Jewish community, but also how the organization can help reinvigorate the entire St. Louis community. He worries that St. Louis might not have a robust Jewish community if the region continues on its current trajectory.

“Missouri ranks 48th out of 50 states in economic development,” he said. “The region is declining economically and in multiple ways.

“We as a Federation in the last five years have significantly expanded our view of what we do and how we operate. We’ve expanded by saying we have to find mission-related opportunities to grow our own region.”

Rehfeld points to Federation’s role in championing partnerships between businesses in Israel and here. He says Federation was the lead non-governmental organization that advocated for the formation of a Missouri trade desk in Israel in 2014, and continues to  provide support to businesses such as BioSTL, which entices companies in Israel and elsewhere around the world to expand to St. Louis. 

“Israel was the first country, and remains a major focus, of our GlobalSTL initiative, to recruit companies from international innovation hubs (to the St. Louis region),” said Donn Rubin, President and CEO of BioSTL. Since the GlobalSTL initiative launched in 2014, Rubin says Federation has stood ready to help in recruitment efforts — especially through its networks to make the transition easier for an Israeli company or a trailing spouse.

“We need to be part of the solution,” said Rehfeld. “That speaks not only to the intermarried issue and how to engage those in our community who are unaffiliated, but also being part of the solution to the problems of the St. Louis region — the continued racial divide, the split in local government between city and county — rather than viewing ourselves as separate.”

Rehfeld notes that Federation was a funder of the Ferguson Commission, albeit with a small grant, but it saw the importance of working with others for progressive change. 

“We are ready to serve and be involved,” he said. “The question is: Does the leadership outside our (Jewish) community view us as a partner? There is still a lot of work to be done on that front.” 

 

Not all a bed of roses

Like any outspoken leader, Rehfeld has his detractors. For example, some in the local Jewish community were critical when Federation failed to organize a community rally in support of Israel after numerous Palestinian terrorist attacks occurred there at the end of 2015. 

Others have pointed to some of Rehfeld’s postings on his personal Facebook page, saying they are too politically charged. 

Over the past three years, he says he has changed his approach to Facebook and is “no longer provocative or intellectually exploratory.”

Federation, itself, has undergone a number of key personnel exits and changes since Rehfeld took charge. He says that in steering Federation to be more “mission-oriented” rather than primarily a funding organization, employees “may not be interested in the direction you are taking or the culture. They may wish to move on and I respect that.”

In addition, he continues, “Some of the professional staff (at Federation) have had long careers here while others may want to contribute to the community for three to five years, then go do something else. I see that as part of a vibrant culture and one that encourages change.”

Solomon, at Miami federation, said it took him 15 years to get the staff he wanted. “Getting the right people on the bus is probably the most important task of a Federation leader,” he said. “That goes for the professional staff and volunteer leadership.”

 

Looking ahead

Among Rehfeld supporters, his 23-year-old daughter, Emma, might be the most ardent. She says her dad is “one of the coolest people” she knows, whose passion has always been “teaching and Judaism.”

“I think he approaches his job at Federation in an academic way,” said Emma Rehfeld, who is an American studies major at Bard College in upstate New York. “I think it’s exciting, frustrating and exhilarating to be in his position. Everyday is a new sort of challenge and he meets those challenges with creativity and grace.”

Emma Rehfeld says she wouldn’t be surprised if her dad runs one day for president of the United States. “I’m not even joking. I think he would be fantastic, he loves politics,” she said.

By the same token, she also could imagine him “escaping somewhere in the country, or heading back to the East Coast and becoming a reclusive writer.” 

She says one of “the best and worst qualities” about her father is that he is ambitious. “He strives so hard to be the best he can be and better than the best,” she said. “It’s admirable and it’s really miserable at the same time. 

“So it’s tricky to say where he’ll end up and I’m not even sure end up is the right word.”

For now, Rehfeld is staying put because there is more he wants to accomplish in his current job. He recently renewed his contract for another three years, says Federation Board Chair Gerry Greiman, who hopes Rehfeld will stay even longer.  

In addition to implementing the new strategic plan, Rehfeld looks forward to helping to reposition the way Federation operates, “from an aggregator and allocator of funds” to a “needs-driven, mission-based” Jewish community foundation. 

“The old Federation model of raising money is to say to someone, ‘You have an obligation to give,’” said Rehfeld. 

“In this new model, we’re not here to twist your arm to give but rather to inspire you about the value of supporting Jewish tradition and culture as part of a life well lived.”

When asked what he’s most proud of accomplishing during the last five years, he thinks for a minute, then smiles. 

“I’m most proud when I hear people say they see in the Federation an organization that is eager to build on Jewish values in service to the region as a whole. That Federation wants to take its place as part of the core institutions of the St. Louis region and state of Missouri to make this place better for everyone who lives here.”