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Today marks the first day of my tenure as the thirteenth president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the first day of what I hope will be a magnificent journey together.
I am humbled and honored to have been called upon by the HUC-JIR Board of Governors to lead this institution’s sacred mission and look forward with great excitement as we forge ahead together, honoring our history while approaching our future with imagination, creativity, and spirit. I commit to doing so through a collaborative, transparent model of leadership that will strengthen the College-Institute’s impact throughout North America, Israel, and around the globe.
In this way I am inspired by the journey of Abraham and Sarah, as they worked to achieve the fulfillment of a promise, without fear and with their tent open to the unexpected. We must follow their model of courage, hospitality, and hope.
At its core, HUC-JIR is dedicated to sustaining the Jewish people through the education of its future leadership. Our graduates build vibrant Jewish communities grounded in serious engagement with our tradition, nurturing a commitment to justice, and making a difference in people’s lives and the wider world.
The College-Institute remains in the vanguard in so many significant ways: outstanding academic and professional development programs preparing the next generation of rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish nonprofit professionals, and scholars; celebrated faculty who deepen our Judaic knowledge while shaping new understandings of our texts, history, and culture; over 4,000 active alumni ensuring the vitality of our congregations, schools, institutions, and Jewish communities large and small around the globe; and pioneering Israeli rabbis and educators who are advancing the cause of religious pluralism and contributing to Israeli society in countless ways.
Over the last three months, I have visited each of our stateside campuses and experienced the vibrancy of our institution and the devotion of its key stakeholders. I have emerged from initial conversations with students, faculty, staff, administration, board members, donors, alumni, and Reform Movement partners, impressed by their determination to address the future with a bold spirit of optimism and a commitment to the reasoned, progressive innovation that has defined the Reform Movement and our College-Institute throughout its history.
Of course, Jewish life today is not the same as it was when Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded our institution 144 years ago. Today, we face slow-existential threats to our Movement and to our People due to insufficient Jewish education, limited engagement, and fractured identity. Other broader dangers include resurgent antisemitism, environmental degradation, ongoing sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and, over the last decade, the reemergence of authoritarianism in global politics.
While there will be no single answer to these challenges, HUC-JIR’s students and graduates must continue to inspire communities to address them, for they are slowly threatening the existence of our People and eroding justice in our world.
On a personal level, I am excited to lead the College-Institute, for the Reform Movement has been critically important in my personal and Jewish development (as you will see in this video). Through these formative experiences, I learned the value of a progressive approach to Jewish tradition in which reason mediates our experience of the Transcendent, ritual brings spiritual depth that sustains an ethical life, and our responsibility to pursue justice begins with our People and extends as a call to justice for all.
I approach the next steps ahead with great humility and recognition of my own need to learn. I will begin this journey with you by listening – and then listening some more in a deliberative way that will unfold over time.
As we begin this crucial work together, I want to express our collective gratitude for the unexpected year of service by Chancellor Emeritus Rabbi David Ellenson, joined by Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss and the vice presidents who led this institution over the last very difficult year – Lissie Diringer, Liz Squadron, and Barbara Telek. Along with Deans Rabbi David Adelson, Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, Dr. Joshua Holo, and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dedicated program directors and staff, devoted faculty and students, Board Chairs Sue Neuman Hochberg and Andrew Berger, and committed board leadership, this team rallied HUC-JIR as it faced the unthinkable loss of its beloved leader, Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l, just 11 months ago.
I particularly want to thank Lisa Messinger for her extraordinary support of the College-Institute during this period of personal loss and tragedy. Her efforts will indeed ensure that Aaron’s legacy – and name – live on through the work that he loved and that inspired so many during his lifetime. Aaron’s legacy will be felt and remembered for years to come and will provide a strong foundation upon which together we will build for the future.
Abraham and Sarah’s journey was based on their faith in the future. Tent flaps open, I look forward to partnering with each of you to strengthen HUC-JIR’s role as a laboratory of ideas, pressing the boundaries of the possible to shape the very meaning of liberal Judaism for the 21st century. Together we will forge a future of idealism, meaning, and purpose, drawn from our texts and tradition, which will continue to inspire the Jewish people and shape our world for decades ahead.
Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is the 13th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A leading political scientist and distinguished Jewish communal leader, Dr. Rehfeld’s career has bridged both the academic and professional worlds as associate professor of political science at Washington University and as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Elected on December 18, 2018, by the HUC-JIR Board of Governors ater a national searchon, he began his tenure on April 1, 2019.
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