In the beautiful historical Plum Street Temple, where Isaac Mayer Wise prayed, Andrew Rehfeld became a descendant of Wise, in a way, being inaugurated as the 10th president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Oct. 27.
Rabbi Isaac Wise was the founder and first president of the university in 1875, and Rehfeld takes over a university with four campuses after the death of Rabbi Aaron Panken z’’l, who died in a plane crash in May 2018.
In his inaugural address Rehfeld said he wants to keep the college moving in the direction Rabbi Panken envisioned for HUC-JIR.
“We embark on this journey together, on this unanticipated journey,” Rehfeld said. “Let us be inspired to complete the unfinished work of President Panken moving forward with our own authority to new and dynamic directions. Let us find our own voice, take ourselves seriously, go forward with optimism and confidence inspiring to new ideas, learning with integrity and strengthening our own Jewish public sphere for that is the work of Hebrew Union College. This is the work of our movement and our people. And together let us build a foundation of goodness, holiness, righteousness and justice for all who inhabit here.”
Rehfeld brings extensive expertise in academic and nonprofit administration, fundraising, strategic planning, and community leadership. He was recruited in 2012 from his tenured faculty position at Washington University to lead the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. During his six years there he galvanized the St. Louis Federation by implementing a “bottom up” community-focused engagement approach.
Prior to joining St. Louis Federation, he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science (2000) and a Master of Public Policy (1994) from the University of Chicago, and a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, in the Philosophy Honors Program at the University of Rochester (1989). His Ph.D. dissertation was entitled “Silence of the Land: An Historical and Normative Analysis of Territorial Political Representation.” In 2001 he joined the faculty of Washington University, where he received tenure as an associate professor of Political Science in 2007.
He started in his role as president in April, and since then has spent at least one month in each city – Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. His goal is to make it “one university … (to) leverage the infrastructure and resources” of HUC-JIR.
“I think the biggest goal right now is we are going to be starting a strategic planning process and say that’s our goal, how do we bring ourselves together to leverage this amazing infrastructure,” he said. “A second goal, the only way we are going to be successful is if we are working more collaboratively with the communities in which we are in and growing that engagement.”
The morning inaugural was attended by faculty, staff and friends of the university, and included songs and readings in the Temple.
Rehfeld said the school must continue to attract and retain the highest caliber of students possible.
“HUC must strive to the ideals to inspire a new generation of leadership to meet the changing environment. … HUC must prepare our students to build, maintain, and sustain both existing and new forms of communal life.”
He said there are three ways of continuing its work to teach and lead the students and community. The school must recognize that the “best and brightest of our next generation” are not only considering careers in the Jewish world, but in the secular world as doctors, lawyers, musicians and artists. He said the school must find a way for students to not be “saddled” with enormous debt. And HUC-JIR must “find it easier for second-career students to find a pathway to every single program our school offers.”
Lastly, Rehfeld said, HUC-JIR should take advantage of the infrastructure it has.
“We must explore opportunities to expand our academic impact by developing new programs … and we should begin that by stop talking about our infrastructure as a burden to be managed but rather as an opportunity to be managed.
“How will we accomplish this? It will take hard work and it will take significant resources and it will take time,” he said.
Sunday evening he was the honoree at this year’s Cincinnati Associates Tribute Dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Cincinnati. During the dinner, Rehfeld talked about creating public spheres in the community to freely discuss and identify problems and influence action for those problems.
“It’s not any one institution it is all (institutions) working together,” in those public spheres, that will form “a canvas on which we express our values and live our lives.”
Rehfeld said none of this will happen without a basis of moral leadership.
“And that’s what we strive to do at HUC,” he said. “Train world leaders for a next generation, experience what it is to be inspired by teacher, by scholars, by practitioners, religiously Reform Judaism and by academics that are teaching not just Jews but … of all faiths, a deepening of their understanding of our tradition, a deepening understanding of the bible, a deepening of our Western Civilization religiously so that they may go back and inspire their communities.”
His background was shaped by the values of his parents that translates into building a strong public sphere throughout the Cincinnati community.
“This is where we are this is where I believe we should be … working in Cincinnati with Cincinnati to reinforce our collective values and for the public good,” he said. “The place my heart holds dear there my feet will bring me near. I am so grateful my feet have brought me here to Cincinnati and I am looking forward to working collaboratively over the next few years to continue strengthening our community together.”