Editorial: Context or Pretext

Andrew Rehfeld

We’ll endeavor to put up information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.

— Will McAvoy, HBO’s “The Newsroom,” Episode 3, “The 112th Congress.”

Andrew Rehfeld will join the Jewish Federation of St. Louis in September as its new President and CEO, succeeding Barry Rosenberg who held the lead professional spot for almost two decades. We wish Rehfeld nothing but the best as he assumes his new position, and thank Rosenberg (who will remain in an advisory capacity over the coming months) on his years of substantial service to the St. Louis Jewish community.

Rehfeld, who had jobs in the Jewish world early in his post-college career and who has served in volunteer capacities for Hillel and other Jewish organizations, did not ascend to this position via the route of continuous professional communal service. Instead, he obtained his PhD and has had a lengthy stint on the faculty at Washington University

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Rehfeld’s hire was the basis of a piece in ejewishphilanthropy.com on June 29 by Rabbi Louis Feldstein, who in the tagline of the article is described as founder and CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions, a “change management consulting practice.”

Feldstein points at the hiring of those like Rehfeld who assume prominent positions in the Jewish world outside what was once the more traditional path to those jobs. While offering well-wishes to Rehfeld and avoiding critique of this particular decision, he uses the announcement to pose big questions about what such hires mean to the future of jobs and training within the community: “If one doesn’t need to be trained to be a Jewish communal professional, then why keep such programs alive?” “If quality training is imperative then who is training these new hires on the nuances of changing from volunteer to professional?” “If ‘anyone’ can do these jobs then are they truly positions of prestige and expertise that warrant such salaries?”

We would never object to questions being posed in the aftermath of a major hire in the community; indeed, we ask them ourselves. But as the lead-in quote from Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show suggests, context is everything, and we just don’t think these are very useful questions, either in the context of Rehfeld’s hire or the broader Jewish communal world. And we find the final question somewhat insulting, albeit in what we’re sure is an unintentional way.

The first one asks why educational programs in Jewish professionalism should exist if the training isn’t required. That’s an easy one. These programs are utilized by many who do go into Jewish communal service. They represent one of many paths to service, and in fact, over time, many of those programs have through research and practice evolved away from a traditional social service construct to a more holistic and useful pedagogy for real-world professionalism.

Second, Feldstein asks who’s training those who evolve from volunteer to professional (and the same question could be asked regarding those moving from outside professional venues to Jewish ones). St. Louis may be the least relevant place to pose this question, however, since the support of professional and lay training and excellence have been at the forefront of local efforts such as the Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership. (In fact, institute Director Marci Mayer Eisen penned a thoughtful response to Feldstein’s piece that also appears on the ejewishphilanthropy site.)

It’s the third question Feldstein poses that’s so troubling, the one questioning why the jobs are worth a lot in money and substance in the marketplace if “anyone” can do them.

Here’s a tiny sampling of the areas of experience possessed by some of the nonprofit leaders in the St. Louis Jewish community hired over the past decade: Human resources, corporate training, community relations, lobbying, law, volunteer management, nonprofit executive management, fundraising, advertising, promotion, marketing.

We don’t think those with substantive skills in these area’s are “anyones,” in Feldstein’s parlance. They are true professionals who have committed to take their invaluable expertise and lend it to the Jewish community during the primes of their careers (and in some cases, for far less financial remuneration than in the private sector). They work in collaboration with those who have more traditional  Jewish communal backgrounds, and together they strive to expand their skills and perspectives to make the community better and stronger.

We of course have our own questions about the challenges Rehfeld faces in the rapidly changing landscape affecting Judaism, religious communities, and the nonprofit world and we’ll address them in future installments. For now, though, neither Rehfeld nor others who forego successful careers in other venues in favor of strengthening the Jewish community need be burdened as poster children for questions of limited utility. We’d much rather they use their ample talents to solve problems that matter.