Coke or Sears? New head of Reform seminary hopes to steer beyond ‘slow existential threat’

Andrew Rehfeld is the first head of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who isn’t a rabbi.
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PHILADELPHIA — Andrew Rehfeld, 52, represents a few firsts for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), where he will begin as its 13th president in April.

He’s almost certainly the first president to think through the future of the 143 year-old Reform institution of higher learning in terms of Coca-Cola and Sears. He’s definitely the first to have “more or less” failed ninth grade at Friends Central, a Quaker school here. And, perhaps most obviously, he’s the first president who isn’t a rabbi.

For Rehfeld, shaping the next generation of Reform leaders is a challenge, daunting in its size but one that his whole life seems to have led toward.

“I was just very fortunate, really,” he said, “delighted and surprised and humbled more than anything.”

He’ll spend the first year “identifying key constituencies” and their needs, he said. And then there’s the Coca-Cola/Sears thought.

“We are, in some ways, like Sears in 1992, or like Coca-Cola today,” he said. “We are a legacy institution that has a well developed brand that people know about and understand, and we are operating against an environment in which we’re facing slow existential threats. Slow existential threats can be ignored today, they can be ignored tomorrow, they can even be ignored for another year. But if you don’t fundamentally recognize that they’re a slow burn, you’re going to face serious challenges.

“For Coca-Cola, the slow existential threat was a sense of drinking more healthily, the problem of carbonated sugary beverages. And what Coke did, brilliantly, was diversify its product line without undermining its core brand, its core idea that its still Coke. … Sears is the classic example of legacy institution that did not fundamentally respond to the fact that you’re looking at existential threats, and you’re out of business.”

So what are those in existential threats? He lists off decline in synagogue membership, decline in denominational affiliation, decline in traditional notions of wanting to be religious, the challenges of anti-Semitism and the decline in Israel “being anything but a complicated mess” in terms of identity-building. The key, he said, will be to do more than simply do what’s been done, but better. New
methods are needed.

Sounds like an easy enough job, right?

“I don’t think you could take a job like this and not feel a great deal of anxiety, just in terms of the stakes, just in terms of the mission, just in terms of the responsibility that I’m taking on,” Rehfeld said.

Rehfeld was born in Baltimore and spent the majority of his childhood in Philadelphia. Back in Baltimore, Rehfeld connected with Reform Judaism for the first time, finding a community and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which “really helped turn me around in a certain number of ways,” he said.

He spent a year working on a kibbutz before he began his undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester. Majoring in philosophy, it was there that he first thought he might want to become a rabbi; animated teaching, learning and community-building, he said, appealed to him and it seemed that the rabbinate was the path that would allow him to do that.

And yet, after graduation, he spent a year in the Jewish Service Corps in India, alongside future Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies President Leon Morris, HUC application in hand, and found that he didn’t yet own “the right kind of commitments to be a rabbi.”

Upon returning to the United States, Rehfeld entered the world of academia, spending most of the decade at the University of Chicago and picking up an M.P.P. and Ph.D. in political science along the way.

What he researched was, even if he didn’t quite put it together at the time, quite similar to the questions he’ll face at HUC.

“I’m interested in the interaction of our political ideals — justice, human rights, political equality — with real-life political institutions, like elections and voting and districting,” he said.

“Religion is, to me, a set of institutions that we have — practices, rules of the game — that structure our ethical life both individually towards the public good and towards justice.”

After moving on from Chicago, he landed in Missouri, where he was a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. There, he was approached by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis with an offer: Was he interested in running it?

“It was just so big and I had such little experience managing and fundraising,” he said. However, he’d had years of volunteering experience in the community, and knew it well through his tenure as the head of the Hillel at Washington University. So, he decided to take the job.

Though he “certainly made a lot of errors in the beginning,” the “chance to really build a public good around Jewish life” helped him and the community flourish, and he’s proud of what he accomplished there; the press release from HUC announcing his hiring touts his leadership during the cemetery
desecration crisis in 2017.

It was not until September that he was approached for the first time about taking over at HUC; the last president, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, was killed in a plane crash in May.

At first, he thought his being contacted by a recruiter was a matter of protocol; for them to have reached out to him, a non-rabbi, was a matter of the search firm demonstrating a direction they thought the school should look in for candidates, rather than any sort of referendum on his own potential candidacy.

Still, he was interested, and over the next few months he went in for interviews and discussions about the future of HUC.

On Dec. 18, he was elected president by the Board of Governors.

Jesse Bernstein is a writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of WJW.

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