Historic ‘firsts’ among Jewish Federation leaders

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

On Sept. 1, Andrew Rehfeld will assume his duties as the new Jewish Federation Chief Executive Officer and President, succeeding Barry Rosenberg, who has helmed the organization since 1993.  Until his retirement in 2013, Rosenberg will stay on to advise Rehfeld.

Rehfeld, a professor of political science and law at Washington University, will be the 12th person to serve in the chief executive role, and he will also be the first person in that post to come from a background other than social work since the very first executive director, Ferdinand S. Bach, who served from 1921 until 1933. Bach, a native of Nashville, Ill., had a solid business background and a strong sense of community responsibility. He had been a successful business leader in mercantile activities from the age of 25. In 1921, he was invited to take the post of executive director of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.

Bach was praised in minutes of the Jewish Federation for putting the organization on a sound financial footing, including instituting joint purchasing of commodities for the Federation and its various affiliated agencies. He was assisted in his duties by Blanche Renard, who had a background in social work and was named director of social services. According to documents supplied from the St. Louis Jewish Archives, Renard was highly regarded by the Federation Board of Directors.

When Bach became ill, he asked the board to promote Renard to assistant executive director in October 1929, the very month of the stock market crash on Wall Street. 

She was named his successor, to take office on Jan. 1, 1933 at an annual salary of $6,000 per year. Bach continued on staff as assistant director at an annual salary of $3,600 per year.

Renard thus became not only the first — and thus far only — female executive director of the local Jewish Federation, but she is believed to have been the first female executive director of a major Jewish federation in the nation. The fact that she was named to such a high level post by the Federation leadership in the depths of the Depression, and in the very year that Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, was truly historic and a remarkably progressive move for that era.

Renard served with great distinction until her resignation was submitted on Oct. 15, 1935, to take effect in Jan. 1936. The minutes of the JFed Board for Nov. 12, 1935 included a document on Renard’s service, which reads, in part, “…Recalling that the position was accepted (by Renard) only reluctantly and only from a desire to render a community service… the Board desires to place on its records its high appreciation of the great service that Miss Renard has rendered to the Jewish Federation and to this community.

“During her administration, Miss Renard has perfected the financial administration of the Federation and has been chiefly responsible for noteworthy improvements in the budgetary practices of most of the beneficiary agencies. These have mitigated in a marked degree the effects of the curtailment of funds during this period.”

Renard was also praised for her leadership in bringing about “equally significant developments in the field of social service welfare administration…Her ability, initiative, patience and tactfulness have brought about a more cordial and intelligent cooperation between the Federation and its member agencies.”

Now, Andrew Rehfeld prepares to take that office. Like Ferdinand S. Bach, Rehfeld will bring a different professional and educational background to his post, and like Blanche Renard, Rehfeld takes office at a time of a severe economic downturn. 

No question he has challenges ahead, but Rehfeld can find professional inspiration among the elite group of professional Jewish community leaders who came before him.