In a first, Reform rabbinical school won’t be led by a rabbi

Andrew Rehfeld will serve as HUC’s 13th president. (Courtesy of HUC)

NEW YORK (JTA) —The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has appointed Andrew Rehfeld, a political science professor who has led the Jewish Federation of St. Louis since 2012, to serve as its 13th president.

On Tuesday, the Reform movement’s flagship seminary said Rehfeld would lead its four campuses in New York, Jerusalem, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. When he starts his new role in the beginning of April, it will be the first time the institution is not led by a rabbi.

Rehfeld is succeeding Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died in a plane crash in May at the age of 53. Rabbi David Ellenson, who led the institution from 2001 to 2013, has been serving as interim president following Panken’s death.

With more than 1 million members, the Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America.

Rehfeld, 52, has been an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis since 2001, where he researches contemporary democratic theory and political theory, including as it relates to Jewish studies. He has been on official leave from the position since 2012, when he accepted the position at the St. Louis federation. He has continued to do research and teach courses on Jewish political thought and Zionism at the university.

At the St. Louis federation, he has overseen the creation of a pluralistic adult Jewish education center, raised money to renovate the city’s Holocaust museum and worked on community security, among other things.

Rabbi David Stern, the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and a member of the search committee that picked Rehfeld, called him “an unconventional choice for our beloved College-Institute, and precisely the right one.”

“His intellectual creativity is manifest in both his impressive academic achievements and the strategic agility with which he has led other programs and institutions,” Stern said in a statement.

Rehfeld grew up in the Reform movement. He attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kutz Camp and participated in the youth group at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1989 with a degree in philosophy, he served as regional director of the Reform youth movement in New Jersey. He also spent a year working with the Jewish community in Mumbai as part of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Service Corps program. He received a master’s degree in public policy and a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago.

One challenge facing the Reform movement, Rehfeld said in an interview with JTA, is finding ways for it to differentiate itself from other liberal Jewish streams.

In 1972, it became the first American Jewish denomination to ordain a female rabbi, but as egalitarianism has become the norm outside the Orthodox world, its work on women’s ritual inclusion is no longer a way to stand out, Rehfeld said.

“We have to remain the leader, but it’s no longer enough to distinguish us as a movement,” Rehfeld said.

Similarly, its rabbinical seminary must find ways of setting itself apart from other non-Orthodox ordination programs, including those being offered online, he said.

“HUC is also dealing with very specific challenges of the multiplicity of places that people can get ordained and perhaps some lack of clarity about what it means to be [ordained as] a Reform Jew, compared to other non-denominational trainings,” he said.

Other challenges include supporting Jewish engagement, including among millennials. Rehfeld said that the answer lies in creating meaningful ritual practice and learning opportunities.

“We’ve adopted in a sense a finger wagging approach — ‘We gotta make sure our kids are Jewish’ — without looking first at what are we doing to regularize Torah study, to regularize Jewish spirituality, to create the kinds of communities that we actually want to model for our kids,” he said.

As he prepares for his new role, Rehfeld is also reflecting on the void and contributions left behind by his predecessor.

“He has generated in his leadership real commitment and professionalism that will be part of his legacy,” he said of Panken. “What we will be able to achieve in the future, and certainly in the next few years, will be because of his leadership”