It started as an innocent question one year ago to a long-time friend. Andrew Rehfeld knew the Jewish Federation of St. Louis had been looking for a replacement for the retiring president and CEO, Barry Rosenberg, and he was curious about the progress of the search. As his friend detailed the profile of the Federation’s ideal candidate, the associate professor of political science at Washington University was intrigued. “It sounded exactly like the sort of thing I was really interested in doing," he says. "The building of community—trying to inspire and move a community to a healthy and robust place where they are helping themselves and one another—was inspirational for me.”
Over the course of the next few months, Rehfeld met with members of the Federation, always going into the meetings with the idea that it was a “crazy proposition,” but leaving with a firmer grasp on the potential of the undertaking; and at the end of June, Rehfeld was named the Federation's next president and CEO.
Although Rehfeld did not assume his new position with a traditional profile, the 47-year-old brings extensive experience and knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish community. Born in Baltimore, he moved to Atlantic City as a young child with his mom after his parents divorced. In his grandparents’ household, the emphasis was on a conservative practice with a traditional framing; and after relocating to Philadelphia, Rehfeld was introduced to Jewish education, history and rituals. In high school, he returned to Baltimore, where his father’s household taught him the social justice side of the religion—giving back to make the world a better place. Before entering college, Rehfeld spent a year in Israel, exploring two other forms of Judaism: one very secular and nationalistic; and the other, very religious and orthodox. “It gave me an appreciation of the multiple ways Judaism provides a way to live a life well-lived,” he explains. “It’s an engagement with eternal questions about giving back to the world, being a part of the community and something bigger than yourself, with a 3,000-year history that has immense value."
After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester, Rehfeld considered the possibility of becoming a rabbi. Because he didn’t feel like he had the theological commitment required to be a member of the clergy, he instead chose to focus on the academic and scholarly investigation of philosophy and community, earning a masters degree in public policy and doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. He accepted a position at Washington University in 2001; and after moving to St. Louis, he became involved as a member of Kol Rinah synagogue and as board and executive committee member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the university’s Hillel.
Now, as head of the Federation, Rehfeld has turned that community focus to St. Louis’ Jewish population. “My vision for this organization is for it to become a collaborative partner, emphasizing that we all have an obligation to each other and a place at the table to help determine what the community is going to look like.”
Since taking up his position on Sept. 1, Rehfeld has begun to examine the needs of the Jewish community. “We have to figure out ways to partner with the St. Louis region to help make this community an attractive one for the Jewish population.”
There also is the importance engaging the current population to stop the loss of commitment to Jewish institutions, values, tradition and culture. “We need to encourage young families, the next generation, to get involved in our agencies, synagogues and programs that help show how Judaism can be a vibrant force in people’s lives,” Rehfeld notes.
With a full plate of responsibilities, Rehfeld has taken a two-year leave of absence from Washington University. The work of the Federation leaves him little free time, but when he is not at his office, he’s with his wife, Dr. Miggie Greenberg, and their children Emma and Hoben. A passion for music has developed into a fledgling band with his son and daughter.
Just a few months into his new role, Rehfeld has a keen understanding of what it takes to lead the Federation, focusing on the principles of knowledge, respect and tolerance to address challenges and help the Jewish population thrive. “I understand the contours of this community and its existing strength, and I’m excited to see the potential for growth and the chance to build on a strong foundation.”