In 1958, German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition, a book-length exposition on the trajectory of Western history, contemplated through the lens of her theories about the vita activa (active life) and vita contemplativa (contemplative life). 

The Human Condition is a philosophically dense read, but Arendt’s message is clear — academia and activity (defined by Arendt as labor, work and action) go hand in hand. 

Andrew Rehfeld
Andrew Rehfeld MPP'94, 10th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Andrew Rehfeld MPP’94, who also earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 2000, is the embodiment of an active life informed by the perfect dosage of academic contemplation. In January, after seven years spent serving as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, it was announced that Rehfeld would assume his new, elected role as the thirteenth president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), a multi-campus institution of Jewish professional and higher education, including the Rabbinical and Cantorial schools of Reform Judaism, on April 1.

Like Arendt, Rehfeld is a bit of a philosopher himself. He’s also a professor, CEO, political scientist and scholar, and as he enters this next chapter of his career, the merging of his active and contemplative lives will extend far beyond his personal orbit.  


Prior to becoming president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, an institution that has become a focus of the Jewish community’s philanthropic and developmental efforts since it was founded in 1901, Rehfeld taught political science at Washington University in St. Louis. He took a leave of absence from his tenured professorship in 2012 to work for the Federation, but eventually continued teaching part-time on subjects including Ethics and Politics, Democratic Theory, the History of Political Thought, and Republicanism and Citizenship.  

Rehfeld and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, the Deputy Dean for Promotions and Recruitment at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, became friends while working together as assistant professors in the political science department at Washington University. Bueno de Mesquita remembers Rehfeld as an excellent political theorist.

“[Rehfeld] worked on political representation and the idea of legitimacy and what does it mean to be legitimately represented by a government,” recalled Bueno de Mesquita. “He was unusually engaged across the social sciences…a very intellectually serious person who was collaborative and thoughtful and open-minded and really intellectually valuable.”

Jewish Federation

Considering Rehfeld’s work at the Jewish Federation within the realm of what would constitute as a contemporary application of Arendt’s concept on the active life —community leadership and all of the fundraising and strategic planning that entails— his transition to HUC-JIR was an exercise in applying that active approach to the more contemplative realm of academia, albeit one crouched in the professional training that the HUC-JIR specializes.

Rehfeld not only has the institutional experience of running a large non-profit (in partnership with thousands of donors, the Federation raises more than $15 million each year for philanthropic causes) but he has a “professional education” of his own from the Harris Public Policy to lean on in addition to his Ph.D.

“It gives me a level of experience, of practice, of the institutional dynamics that are important to running [and] maintaining a multi-disciplinary, broad, professional, and academic institution,” Rehfeld said.  “I say that I went from studying politics to doing politics, and there really is a lot of truth to that distinction.”


When Rehfeld started at the Jewish Federation in 2012, he says he asked other CEOs of Jewish Federations what resources he could turn to in order to prepare for his new role. It wasn’t an easy ask. 

“There was no alignment among those at the top level of Jewish communal leadership about what one needed to know from an academic basis to be a Jewish communal professional, not even an ability for people to say, ‘Oh, here is the one core text, or here are the two core texts,’” recalls Rehfeld. “A couple of people said to me, ironically, ‘The Torah,' the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. And they were saying that both seriously but tongue-in-cheek. And they're saying it seriously because we have to be based in Jewish knowledge, and I appreciated that. But they also knew that was not the question. My question was, as you approach Jewish communal life, and as you think about the future of dynamic, healthy, vibrant Jewish communities, what's the shared basis of our conversation and dialogue? There's an enormous opportunity to establish an agenda, a syllabus, a curriculum for what it means to be a Jewish professional.”

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

When it was founded in 1875, the Hebrew Union College existed to train rabbis within the Reform movement of Judaism. When the HUC merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950, the HUC-JIR expanded its mission to the one it still has today, which is “to educate men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, leaders in Jewish education, and Jewish nonprofit management professionals,” according to the institution’s website. 

Rehfeld’s election by the HUC-JIR Board of Governors was historic. He is the first non-rabbi to serve as the School’s president, a move he said he sees as “a recognition that somebody’s who’s not a rabbi actually could bring something to the table, because it’s such a broad school” in terms of the institution’s multi-disciplinary agenda. 

“The fact that I'm not a rabbi creates important areas of learning that will be part of my own education as I take this job, areas I will be extremely sensitive to because that legacy of the school is critically important to maintain,” said Rehfeld. 

Bueno de Mesquita analogized Rehfeld’s unconventional appointment to that of a medical school appointing a chemist as president — an unusual, yes, but inspired choice. 

“I think it's a super interesting choice, because Andrew is neither a Rabbi nor even really a Jewish Studies Professor,” said Bueno de Mesquita. “He's a political philosopher. It is a very outside the box choice for a school which is largely a rabbinical seminary, to choose somebody who comes from an academic tradition which is not one of the primary academic traditions they work in, and also is not a professional sort they typically train. He is a political scientist, although…very philosophical and in that way, I think it's a more natural fit than many political scientists would have been.” 


While at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, one of Rehfeld’s priorities was to increase community security as incidents of anti-Semitic hate crimes spiked nationwide. According to a recent report from the FBI, between 2016 and 2017 alone, hate crime incidents specifically targeting Jewish institutions rose 37 percent. But the rise of populist anti-Semitism, according to Rehfeld, has been a real and felt threat further back than the last two years. 

“Populist anti-Semitism is growing, at least its expression is growing, and that has real consequences for real people,” Rehfeld said. “Everyone's reacting to [the mass shooting at the synagogue in] Pittsburgh, and I understand why they should, but that wasn't the first killing at all. When you go back to 2014, you have three people killed [at a Jewish Community Center outside Kansas City]. It's federations that are shot at, so the challenge is to help people to react and react appropriately and prepare and not overreact. We have the state that's fully supportive of our efforts to protect ourselves, but not contributing to it.”

Statist anti-Semitism, characterized most brutally and historically by the Nazis, is a different manifestation of anti-Semitism from the populist, anti-Semitism behind today’s hate crimes.

“The lone caveat to that is I do think that, and it's been well-documented, this administration has permitted  a climate of hate speech without firmly and decisively condemning it and has allowed purveyors of that kind of hate into positions of power, which while they're not using it to advocate state-sponsored anti-Semitism, by perpetuating that climate, you then indirectly allow for the expression of it,” said Rehfeld.

Rehfeld said he remembers speaking with Vice President Mike Pence in 2017 after more than 130 headstones were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. 

“The vice president and I walked around the cemetery together,” Rehfeld recalled. “And he turned to me and he said, ‘Andrew, why is this happening now?’ Very few times do I not know what to say, can't think of something to say, [but] how can you not get it? I think it is the condoning of it by people in power, the failure to condemn that certainly helps stoke populist anti-Semitism today.”

What defines the Reform movement of Judaism is also what informs HUC as an educational institution, the blueprint of which is inherent in Rehfeld’s life and career; it gets at the heart of what Arendt, and Aristotle before her, were exploring when it came to considering the duality of action and contemplation in pursuit of the transcendent.

“You do it through three ways,” Rehfeld said. “You engage in text, you engage in ritual spirituality, and you do it in community. And out of that, drawn from the Jewish tradition, you create that, you struggle with it, you counter it, you are challenged by it and you challenge it, and you forge a religious engagement. That's liberal Judaism, and it's a Judaism that started off not simply for itself but in order to develop a life of meaning and purpose, develop a set of ethical practices that help you live an ethical life and achieve a more just world.”