Dr. Andrew Rehfeld (courtesy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)
Dr. Andrew Rehfeld (courtesy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)
Interview'The denominations and the movements are changing quickly'

First non-rabbi head of Reform seminary says it’s time to redefine liberal Jewry

Before deciding on direction he will take flagship Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Andrew Rehfeld visits all four campuses to listen and learn

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

In December 2018, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion appointed Dr. Andrew Rehfeld as its 10th president. Rehfeld, who assumed his post this past April, is the first non-rabbi to helm Judaism’s Reform movement’s flagship seminary and center for higher education in its 144 year history. Rehfeld succeeds Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died in a plane crash in May 2018.

An associate professor of political science at Washington University who headed the St. Louis Jewish Federation from 2012 to 2019, Rehfeld recently moved to New York. However, he’s seeing little of his new home this summer and fall as he travels to each of HUC-JIR’s four campuses in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem, spending a month at each. His aim is to become more familiar with HUC-JIR’s rabbinical and cantorial schools, and its Jewish education and communal non-profit leadership graduate programs. He will meet with faculty and administrators, as well as with some of the 330 students who are enrolled in degree programs every year.

“Right now I’d say I’m living in a dedicated seat on Delta Airlines” Rehfeld joked in a recent interview with the Times of Israel at HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem.

Dr. Andrew Rehfeld with rabbinical, education, and nonprofit management students at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR (Courtesy of HUC-JIR)

For Rehfeld, 53, it’s important to watch, listen and learn before embarking on any new strategic planning.

In Rehfeld’s view, not being a rabbi and coming in from outside the institution is an advantage at this point in HUC-JIR’s history, and given present challenges and opportunities within the American Jewish community, as well as in Israel. Having grown up in the Reform movement and served on the boards of multiple synagogues, he knows what it is to be “a Jew in the pew” and profoundly and positively influenced by good rabbinical leadership.

“I bring new eyes. It’s very hard for organizations in the middle of dynamic shifts to make them from within, so I think there is a greater opportunity not just for me, but for anyone coming from the outside,” Rehfeld said.

The new president said he recognized the liability of not having rabbinical training and ordination, and would therefore rely on the expertise of the rabbis in the HUC administration, especially with regard to the rabbinical school curriculum, pastoral counselling and the ordination of students.

Rehfeld, who is married to a psychiatrist and father to two adult children, is quick to de-emphasize his unique status.

HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld meets Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem, July 2019. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“The historic break that is been made a big deal of is wrong for two reasons. Number one, HUC has long trained Jewish leaders beyond rabbis. Most of our students are not rabbinical students. That decision was made decades ago. Furthermore, most university and college presidents are experts in one field and not expert in most of the others… [They do] it by relying on the expertise that’s there and knowing [their] limits. Bringing managerial expertise and inspiring people about the prospects of professional leadership in the Jewish public sphere is what it is about,” Rehfeld said.

In a wide-ranging conversation with The Times of Israel, Rehfeld shared his views on a variety of subjects, including the role of Reform Judaism in an era when young people eschew synagogue-centric, denominational Jewish life, and the importance of Hebrew. Rehfeld spoke about where Reform stands during a time of growing rifts within the American Jewish community, and between American Jews and Israel.

Why did you want this job?

There are personal and professional reasons. First the professional: I am committed to vibrant Jewish communities and to the future and sustainability of the Jewish people. I don’t think there is a single organization that trains leaders that has as large an impact on the Jewish public sphere — certainly in America — as HUC.

On the personal level, I have had two prior careers:  one as an academic and one as CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. This was the opportunity to bring both of those into sync — to return to an academic footing, but in a position of leadership, management, fundraising, strategic planning, and public messaging. I’m able to live a more complete life.

What is the relevance of Reform Judaism at a time when young American Jews are either disengaged from Jewish life or abandoning Jewish labels and denominations?

The short answer is: I’m not sure. [President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi] Rick Jacobs has said as much, perhaps not as directly, about the end of denominationalism. I think it’s really important to distinguish between movements and underlying philosophies and ideologies. Movements are networks of institutions and organizations that are all swimming in in the same direction for a certain purpose. I think… you are seeing a weakening of those institutions. What I don’t think has lost relevancy is the ideologies of liberal Judaism that underly what the movement has been and maybe will continue to be about.

I think what HUC as an educational institution is doing is helping people understand what the core of liberal Judaism is. It’s a Judaism that places reason as the preeminent human capacity, and that understands that our engagement in Torah, ritual practice, and Jewish community is designed to lead us to the good and the right and the just. That gives a level of authenticity and depth to Jewish practice… The articulation of it may not be in brick and mortar synagogues, or in places identified with the Reform movement, but it’s happening… I think that the denominations and the movements are changing quickly and it’s all the more reason that we need to be focusing on our core: what makes a liberal Jew a liberal Jew, and on liberal Judaism as an ideology.

I think Reform Judaism as a movement provides the institutional apparatus for this transformation. There will always be a place and vibrancy for liberal Judaism, and HUC is here to train the next generation to lead in a time of change, and to create a new set of institutions.

Dr. Andrew Rehfeld with rabbinical students at the New York campus of HUC-JIR (Courtesy of HUC-JIR)

In recent years, educators have recognized the importance of imparting a non-Holocaust centric Jewish identity to their students. How will HUC prepare graduates to educate for a positive Jewish identity in a time of increased anti-Semitism?

Judaism is a substantive set of ideas that are joyful, life affirming, and that enrich our lives immeasurably. That is how we should lead, that is how we are leading, and that is how we will lead. We have to recognize that anti-Semitism is rising, but it is a particular kind of anti-Semitism. It’s populist anti-Semitism, and it’s a kind that has existed and probably will exist forever, it seems, in the hearts and minds of some individuals.

What has changed recently is the willingness of public figures, particularly in the US, to allow the expression of it to go forward without condemning it, without stopping it. But the state, even in the US, is not behind promoting the anti-Semitism. There is a huge difference between what we are seeing and the statist anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, and we have to take this into account in assessing what kind of threat this is.

We still lead and train on the joy of Jewish life and we can’t live in fear

We still lead and train on the joy of Jewish life and we can’t live in fear. We also have to put this fear into context. The relative threat of being harmed as a Jew today is almost certainly lower in world historic terms than at any time… The risk is very low and a lot of it is in our head. We have to be cognizant that the anti-Semitism we are seeing the the US is part and parcel of racism, in particular anti-Muslim racism. We need to be inspired by our Jewish values that say that where hatred exists we have a responsibility to address it.

How important is Hebrew in the training of professional leaders for the Jewish community? And do you speak the language?

One of the challenges I have in thinking about this job is understanding that my Hebrew is not where it ought to be as the leader of a Jewish institution… This is an area for my own growth.

I think Hebrew is important. Hebrew takes immersion to understand and fully grasp. So long as we have communities that are not invested in sending their kids to Israel on long-term programs, the hope of really investing in Hebrew education in our communities will always be in a sense an important, but a marginal area.

For my predecessor, Aaron Panken z”l, this was a critically important part of the education for our HUC students, and I could not agree more… However, we’re challenged because our communities don’t emphasize Hebrew. That means if we are going to train the next generation [of leaders] we could put all kinds of limits on who can be admitted, versus seeing [introductory-level Hebrew instruction] as the beginning of a longer term ongoing learning.

HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D. with first year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students in the Year-In-Israel Program at HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of HUC-JIR)

Some have said that there is no longer a unified American Jewish community, but rather a variety of different Jewish communities. What do you think?

This is something that really took up a lot my time as a Federation executive in St. Louis. I really think there are three authentic approaches to Jewish life: halachic, liberal, and secular. What I see in America is communities or camps that are increasingly intolerant of one another. For instance, I’m seeing creeping growing extremism among halachic Jews who are becoming less and less tolerant of a communal, broad approach to events and to the community. Pluralism has to be recognizing the authenticity of other forms of Judaism without having to necessarily agree with them.

Pluralism has to be recognizing the authenticity of other forms of Judaism

The growing rift between American Judaism and Israeli Judaism can be attributed in large part to the marginalization — and even delegitimization — of liberal Judaism by the Israeli religious establishment and political leadership. For instance, Israeli education minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz recently stated that intermarriage among American Jews is “like a second Holocaust.” But do you think American liberal Judaism bears any blame for the rift, as well?

I think [Peretz’s statement] was terrible… I have already said that the minister’s comments are outrageous and I was very happy to see him take them back in a letter to Jewish Agency chairman [Isaac] “Buji” Herzog. Peretz apologized, and I accept that apology. But it does fit with the tenor of this intolerance. It doesn’t build Jewish peoplehood. The problem is the concentration of political power in religious authority. It’s not the state of Israel, and it’s certainly not Israelis.

I don’t think about it in terms of blaming one side of the other. It’s not like Israel did something and now American Jews are upset. I think this is a very specific institutional piece. As long as you are going to back a very specific Judaism with political power, you are going to alienate folks who don’t share that [kind of Judaism].

Maybe it is a failure of liberal Judaism to really explain [to Israelis] what it is — what is the authenticity of liberal Judaism, not simply for us in America, but as an authentic form of Jewish life. I think change has begun with the the work being done by our Israeli rabbis and when you look at the 45 congregations that are building vibrant Reform communities here in Israel.

Class of the 100th Israeli Reform Rabbi: (from left) Yair Tobias, Leora Ezrahi-Vered, Rinat Safania Schwartz, and David Laor (Courtesy HUC-JIR)

Israel is an ethnocentric nation state moving increasingly to the right. How can young liberal American Jews raised to value the universal over the particular be convinced to care about Israel?

I think it’s an absolute false dichotomy to say that you favor universalism over particularism. I don’t think you can get to universalism or cosmopolitanism, or any of the global values, without going through particularism of a certain kind. Particularism is a means to achieving the universal. Even though the universal is what we are aiming at — the good, the right, and the just — you can’t get there without particularism. Starting where you are as somebody that has an identity as Jewish, that is connected historically, is the most effective psychological way to develop the kind of particularism that will lead to universalism.

If you walk away because of a challenge, then shame on you. You’re cowardly

I didn’t say it was going to be easy. If you walk away because of a challenge, then shame on you. You’re cowardly… Where I feel very upset is when I see Jews in the US who see what is happening here to the Palestinians and see the discrimination and the growing racism here, and simply say, “I’m done with Israel.” You’re going to abandon your Jewish life that connects you to people here who are doing injustice to others? That’s a rejection of pursuing universal values.

You have a connection to the Jewish people and to Israel that gives you a leverage that could actually help effect change for the Palestinians and the Jewish community here in Israel because you’re Jewish. That’s particularism in service of the universal.

How can rabbis get American Jews constructively engaged with Israel?

I do think there does seem to be a need for rabbis to be in the mode of teachers about Israel, rather than either preach or be quiet. Rabbis in the field tell me that they don’t feel comfortable speaking out about Israel because they don’t know enough. You can teach about things you don’t know about. You can present this side and that side and have people engage and ask the hard questions about it…

I do think that more training is necessary, because I am not seeing this from the pulpit. I am seeing either preaching that is praising or condemning Israel, or I am seeing nothing.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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