HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D. delivered this address at the Opening Plenary of the URJ Biennial in Chicago on December 11, 2019. Watch the video here.
On the afternoon of Friday, September 18, 1981, my father drove me to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation for the start of my first Temple youth group retreat. I brought two bags with me—one with clothes and another with schoolwork (I’m not exactly sure what was I thinking!). Most importantly, I brought with me the guitar that my grandfather Morris had given me about nine months before.
My involvement with Temple Youth Group and NFTY would mark the beginning of a personal transformation for me, for it came after a very difficult year. Beginning that weekend, I found in my congregation and in the Reform Movement a powerful way to think about my own life commitments. For the congregation, the Movement, and the youth group helped to turn my life in a different direction from where it had been heading. That framework, the way I saw it, was based on three core ideas:
First, the idea that Reason and rationality must be the primary way to understand our world and God’s place in it;
Second, the idea that each of us has a sacred responsibility for our own moral actions;
And third, that our commitment to the beauty, majesty, and wisdom of our Jewish tradition, its texts, its ritual, and our community was of instrumental value in order to achieve Justice in the world.
During that weekend some 38 years ago, I was inspired by a caring community of peers who took those ideas seriously, engaged in meaningful ritual and song, and created the space to welcome an outsider among them.
For the first time as an emerging adult, I felt like I was at home in my own tradition, without compromising reason, science, and the life of the mind, which were already important values to me.
Real transformation is most successful and enduring if supported by community, just as the synagogue and Reform Movement would provide for me. Our Reform Movement shaped who I was yet to become: first at Baltimore Hebrew, then through a decade of learning and leading at Kutz Camp, and then taking my first full time job after college working for Rabbi Danny Freelander as the Director of JFTY-- the New Jersey region of NFTY.
In time, I would join so many of you in your roles as a lay leader, through service on the board of my congregation, just a few miles south of here in Hyde Park—KAM-Isaiah-Israel Congregation. There, I learned the challenges of sustaining and building strong communities at a time of great change. My education and development came not simply in the board room, but also as an active congregant, teacher, and youth group advisor, where I benefitted from a community of learning, caring, and service to others.
In 2001, I left to become a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. There I taught courses in political science, political theory, Zionism, and Jewish Political Thought. I followed that by serving for seven years as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.
And now, 38 years after an awkward kid showed up with his book bag and guitar to a weekend retreat at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, I stand before you as the newly inaugurated President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Even as my inauguration represents a new beginning for the College-Institute, let us not forget the context of this new chapter, unfolding as it does in the aftermath of the tragic death of my predecessor, Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory.
I begin a presidency that no one wished needed to be filled, under circumstances we pray we will never face again.
As I begin my service as HUC’s 10th President, I recognize and honor the unfinished presidency on which mine is being built, for the particular shoes into which I step are not merely large…they are suspended in mid-stride.
Rabbi Aaron Panken’s legacy of teaching and scholarship will live on in multiple ways. And I want to note here the establishment of the four Rabbi Aaron Panken Professorships that were brought to fruition last year through the passionate work of Aaron’s beloved wife, Lisa Messinger, and the support of almost 1000 individuals, many of whom are here at the Biennial today. Over the last year, Lisa has become more than just a supporter of the college, but, along with Rabbi David Ellenson, an important advisor and mentor to me as I learn about the history of our College-Institute, and for that I am deeply grateful. Building upon President Panken’s legacy and guided by his vision, we now will move HUC into its next dynamic direction.
Aaron’s legacy and that of his predecessors begins by recognizing the impact that the College-Institute has had on our congregations, camps, and many other institutions of Jewish life. For it is through HUC that our Reform Clergy and Jewish leaders are trained to create the kinds of caring, welcoming, and learning communities that you have spent years and sometimes lifetimes supporting in your roles as lay leadership.
And what a great privilege it is thank each of you for your continued partnership in shaping a vibrant future for our Movement, for North American Jewry, Israel, and the Jewish People worldwide. Individually, many of you have made the College-Institute central to your own philanthropy. And all of you, as members of URJ congregations, support HUC though RMAC, for almost half of every dollar that you contribute to the Movement comes directly to HUC to help support the training of your next rabbi, your next cantor, Jewish educator, or non-profit professionals around the world. Through this partnership, we ensure that a new generation of Jewish leadership rises up to lead American Jewish life into the future.
Since its founding in 1875, HUC has expanded from a seminary that ordained six rabbis in its first class, to become the largest graduate and professional school solely dedicated to the development of Jewish professional leadership in the world. We operate Rabbinical programs, the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, a School of Education, the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, the Pines School of Graduate Studies, a Doctor of Ministry program, and the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies, the Jewish Studies department of the University of Southern California.
Not including the hundreds of undergraduates that we teach each year through the Louchheim School at USC, we have a current enrollment of 330 graduate, professional, and seminary students, we are now a global institution driving ideas and building Jewish leadership with broad impact on four campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and New York.
And thanks to the leadership of President Panken, our work advancing pluralism in Israel is more central and important than ever, a legacy that must continue. And please let me personally extend to you this invitation: the next time you take your congregation to Israel, come and visit our campus in Jerusalem, learn with our faculty, pray in our synagogue, and witness our transformative partnerships with our Israeli partners happening on the campus that you are already supporting!
With over 4000 HUC alumni, the graduates that you have supported are building a vibrant Jewish future and bringing justice to our world.
How do we do it? Through our faculty, HUC drives the ideas and the leadership that strengthen the Jewish Public Sphere – the institutions that form the canvas of Jewish communal life, upon which we establish and realize our collective values. The Jewish Public Sphere is the communal ecosystem in which our lives are lived, our Jewish values are articulated, our collective problems are solved, and our future in no small part depends. The Jewish Public Sphere, with congregations at their center, helps us confront our shared external challenges as well: the growth of authoritarian governments throughout the world, a weakening of democratic norms in the United States, the degradation of our environment, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism, hatred, and racism at levels not seen in perhaps two or three generations.
Today, we recognize the changes facing our congregations and the Jewish Public Sphere. We are seeing greater innovation, risk taking, and experimentation in how communities are gathering and forming. And our Jewish communities are also becoming far more diverse than at any time in the past. We are multi-racial; inter-faith; inter-denominational; non-denominational; inter-gendered; inter-oriented; multi-ideological. We must prepare our students to lead communities to embrace this diversity.
In response to this changing Jewish landscape, we at HUC are working hard to prepare our students to build, maintain, and sustain both existing and new forms of communal life and religious expression.
Our Movement’s embrace of audacious hospitality and tikkun olam as its defining practices is critical. For it is through these practices that we create communities of caring designed to address the most pressing problems facing our world today. And I note with gratitude our partnership with the URJ and its inspirational leadership, in particular President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and I also congratulate Daryl Messinger, the outgoing Chair of the URJ’s North American Board of Trustees, for her robust leadership through her lived values.
Even as our Movement rightly embraces audacious hospitality and tikkun olam, I do have a concern that defining our identity by these noble and righteous practices of inclusion and social justice will not be enough to sustain vibrant Jewish communities. For practices alone do not define identity nor do they deepen understanding of the ideological foundations from which those practices emerge. And thus, we stand confronted by, and often unable to answer, the central questions that must define our Movement: “What is Reform Judaism,” “Why are we Reform Jews?” “Why are we committed to inclusion and tikkun olam,” or more simply, “Why be Jewish at all?”
I think about these foundational questions by returning to the three principles that drew me to our movement some 38 years ago.
I am a Reform Jew because I treat reason, evidence, and science as coming from our preeminent human capability of rationality through which I am called to understand the world, including confronting our texts as human creations and struggling with the divine.
I am a Reform Jew because I accept my responsibility to make binding moral decisions as a morally autonomous individual, guided by Rabbis of any gender identity and any sexual orientation who have followed a sacred calling to be my teachers, my pastors, and my guides.
And I am a Reform Jew because I accept a commitment to our particular texts, our particular traditions, and our particular people—Torah, Avodah and Yisrael— as a means to achieve justice in our world. For I recognize that being guided by and grounded in a particular community is necessary to pursuing our ultimate and our universal values of the Good, the Holy, the Right, and the Just.
I continue to be moved by the power of congregations to create safe and nurturing spaces to enable us to seriously engage with these ideas. And I believe congregations are vitally important even in these times of changes to provide a place for each of us to study our rich heritage of Jewish texts, pray together, celebrate holidays, mark the full spectrum of life’s experiences, and mobilize our communities to make the world a better, more sustainable place, bending the our world towards Justice.
Over the coming year, I will be visiting cities around North America. Please look out for news about faculty visits to your communities, traveling exhibitions from our museums, roundtable discussions with me, student presentations, and more on our website – huc.edu – and let me know if you would like me to come to your congregation and visit your homes, your boards, and your communities.
And so now, I think back to that first weekend retreat where I was inspired by our Movement and I thank you again for working together as we create new opportunities for new generations into the future. Join with me as we move forward in a new and dynamic direction, finding our own voices, going forth with optimism and confidence, inspiring our communities with ideas, leading with integrity, and strengthening our congregations and our broader Jewish Public Sphere.
For that is the work of Hebrew Union College,
This is the work of our Reform Movement and the Jewish People.
And together we will build a foundation of Goodness, Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice for all who inhabit the Earth.
It is now my honor to pay tribute to the power of one special voice, Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, who in 1975 became the first woman cantor to be ordained by HUC, and whose ordination nearly 45 years ago continues to symbolize the values of equality, inclusion, pluralism, and human rights for which HUC and the URJ and the entire Movement stand.