Andrew Rehfeld is marking his first year as the 10th president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
A Baltimore native, Rehfeld was born at Sinai Hospital, then moved away to Atlantic City and Philadelphia. As a teenager, he returned to Baltimore.
There, Rehfeld joined Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where he developed leadership skills. Rehfeld said Baltimore itself also helped foster values he would use later in life.
“The neighborliness of Baltimore was never about protecting one’s own,” Rehfeld said. “It was about being grounded in a place in order to improve the whole.” This, he said, is intrinsically connected to Judaism and his pursuits.
After high school graduation, Rehfeld worked on a kibbutz for a year before he continued on to higher education.
Rehfeld eventually became a professor of political science because of his interest in how institutions interact. As a political scientist, his favorite theorists are Plato and Karl Popper. While the two are traditionally at odds (Plato being virtue-based while Popper may be called more critical or science-based), Rehfeld enjoys examining what they represent on the world stage.
Just like Rehfeld’s Jewish values brought him to this career, his career mirrors back his Jewish identity.
“Plato’s ideas of [philosophy]are reflected in the Jewish tradition,” Rehfeld noted.
Rehfeld also served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.
All of these experiences prepared Rehfeld for his next challenge, where he didn’t just have big shoes to fill; he had to fill them mid-stride. Rehfeld’s predecessor at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, died in an airplane accident nine months before Rehfeld’s appointment to the position. Partially because of that, Rehfeld found himself spending the majority of his first year just “listening.” He comforted the university as it grieved, and also listened to students and staff about how to grow the school’s legacy.
“I can think of no one who would be better trained to handle this first year than Dr. Rehfeld,” said Sue Neuman Hochberg, chair of the board of governors. “His experience, foresight, and ability to maneuver in what will prove to be one of the most challenging years in the history of the College-Institute has been a gift to all of us in the HUC family and the greater Reform world in which we operate.”
Rehfeld establishes his work there on a foundation of values: honesty, integrity, kindness, transparency, accountability, and trust.
While he is the school’s first non-rabbi leader, Rehfeld finds that the position demands leadership skills rather than practical skills.
“I would not imagine to manage the curriculum of the rabbinical school,” he said.
Rather, his job is about those aforementioned values.
His favorite part about his work, though, is inspiring other people to do great things. “I don’t do pride so well,” he said. “There’s no job you can get done without a great team.”
That “great team” has particularly stepped up during this devastating pandemic. Staff members are offering distance learning while replanning events such as the graduation ceremony, which was postponed for the first time.
HUC-JIR is also considering longer-term solutions for people commuting to the college.
“There is an opportunity in achieving long-standing goals, to understand what’s on the line,” Rehfeld said. Some rabbis may do better with low to no residency, if, for example, their families cannot move. Even after quarantine, by next year, there could be more options for the school’s community to participate from a distance.
Personally, Rehfeld’s job usually involves a lot of travel, which makes it more difficult now but at least he has time to be with his family.
On an even larger scale, he sees the COVID-19 crisis possibly bringing out some positive aftermath. Rehfeld noted the selflessness of people social distancing to protect others. He also, “and this might be too optimistic,” hopes there will be a reestablishment of science as the director of policy.
On a personal, university, and global scale, “the plan for the future is to plan for the future,” he said.