The Remarkable Rehfeld Record

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JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

As he leaves his job as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Andrew Rehfeld is exchanging one daunting position for an even more demanding responsibility.

On April 1, when he becomes the 13th president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinic seminary for Reform Judaism, Rehfeld will be the first non-rabbi in that post.

His record over the past six years has been one of impressive accomplishment. At a time when the federation movement has seen significant changes to its old model of fundraising, Rehfeld brought intellectual rigor and an approachable demeanor to help support a wide variety of local, overseas and Israeli agencies.  

He told the Jewish Light that among the accomplishments he is most proud of is the transformation of the federation model to take a more “bottom up” and community-focused engagement approach.  

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He spearheaded the 2014 Jewish community demographic study, which provided him and his lay leadership with a quantified menu of goals that he proceeded to implement. He collaborated in a congenial and respectful manner with the professional and lay leadership and volunteers of the various agencies. 

Rehfeld worked with the Jewish Community Center to mount the festive and fun Sababa Jewish Arts & Cultural Festival in October, which showcased the immense and diverse talent in our 60,000-member Jewish community; he hopes that Sababa will be a biennial celebration.

The Jewish Light worked in close collaboration with Rehfeld and Federation leadership in the bold and creative move to transform the newspaper from a paid subscription-based model to distribution that is free to all.

Rehfeld was not afraid to make a controversial decision if he was convinced it made structural and financial sense.  He implemented a corporate merger of the old Central Agency for Jewish Education into the Federation aegis as the Jewish Center for Learning.  There had been concerns that the merger would diminish local Jewish Education, but under the Center for Jewish Learning the classes are as robust as ever with a less costly and cumbersome structure. Rehfeld’s diplomatic and collegial approach helped pave the way into the new structure.

In a column published in last week’s edition of the Jewish Light, Rehfeld reflected on his career path — from academia, where he was a tenured associate professor at Washington University, to Federation and now to becoming president of a major Jewish institution of learning.

“I came to the Federation after a process of recruitment that began in January of 2012,” he wrote. “I had not intended to leave my prior career as a political science professor at Washington University.  However, I saw the role as an opportunity to support an important, vibrant Jewish community.”

Rehfeld noted that federations have played an historic role in addressing urgent existential threats characteristic of the 20th century.  “As the threats have changed,” he added, “federations have been significantly challenged. In times of dynamic change, legacy institutions must recognize the different nature of the threat before them and be willing to change appropriately to address them.”

When anti-Semitism showed a sharp increase during his tenure, Rehfeld worked with the Jewish Community Relations Council, the ADL and AJC to bring the community together for such actions as restoring the desecrated Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery and adopting stronger security measures to protect our synagogues and Jewish institutions.

Rehfeld will deploy his considerable institutional and people skills to HUC-JIR, a sprawling university that has campuses in New York City, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. As is the case with the federation movement, HUC-JIR has provided over 150 years of service for Reform Judaism, the largest stream of Judaism in North America.

The old “top-down” model of leadership in education is also being challenged by people who are demanding more flexibility in patterns and practices of worship, synagogue leadership, the rabbinate and the cantorate.

Rehfeld proved that he was more than up to the task of providing enlightened and forward-looking leadership to our local Jewish Federation, in partnership with our local agencies, synagogues and temples. We have no doubt that Rehfeld will deploy those same skills as he takes on the leadership of HUC-JIR, and we wish him godspeed and much success and fulfillment in his new role.