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Hebrew Union College loses protection from 1950 merger agreement

Ohio AG 'troubled' by 'move to close'
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Posted at 9:08 AM, Apr 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-14 11:24:53-04

CINCINNATI — They say they want to re-imagine the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. So, why did the school’s New York -based administrators get its board of governors to erase a 72-year-old requirement to permanently operate a rabbinical school here?

“I think the change was made precisely so the administration could go ahead with reducing, if not completely closing the rabbinical program in Cincinnati,” said Michael Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at HUC-JIR. “The favoritism they show for New York and to some extent Los Angeles will make it very difficult for any kind of a program to survive here.”

The WCPO 9 I-Team requested a copy of the resolution approved Monday by HUC-JIR’s board. The school provided it Wednesday.

It's a resolution to modify the 1950 consolidation agreement between Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College and New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion. This line was removed: “Consolidated corporation shall permanently maintain rabbinical schools in Cincinnati, Ohio and New York, New York.”

The resolution also instructs administrators to design “an academically rigorous, low-residency clergy program” for Cincinnati by 2025 and “expand the impact of our Cincinnati-situated academic resources,” including the Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives and Skirball Museum. It said those changes would be pursued “with recognition that the success of all new projects depends on new financial support.”

On Monday, school officials announced plans to close the rabbinical residency program in Cincinnati by 2026. But they did not mention changes to the 1950 merger agreement, which had only been modified once before, in 1992, according to the resolution.

President Andrew Rehfeld did not respond to questions about the contract change. But he released a statement:

“This decision was difficult and painful for all concerned, and, we know, for the Cincinnati community. We all deeply respect the precious history, heritage, and resources of our Cincinnati campus and hope we can process and absorb this change together, eventually looking ahead to envision an elevated role for our institution in the city of Cincinnati, with continued influence throughout the Jewish community nationwide and around the world.”

The Ohio Attorney General’s office also issued a statement:

“Attorney General Yost is troubled by the board’s move to close such a historic program and remains hopeful other options will come to light.”

As WCPO previously reported, the AG threatened to investigate if the school’s restructuring failed to “honor the intent of benefactors and serve the interests of intended beneficiaries.” The office declined to comment on whether an investigation has been launched.

Meyer, who published a book about the school’s first 100 years in 1975, offered some insight about why the 1950 merger agreement included language about permanent rabbinical schools.

“The president of the Hebrew Union College at the time, Nelson Glueck, was very concerned that the educational nucleus for rabbinical training remain in Cincinnati,” Meyer said. “It had been the strong feeling that because the roots of American Reform Judaism are here in Cincinnati, that it was important that a vigorous rabbinical program remain here on a permanent basis.”

The merger agreement allows for revisions if two-thirds of board members authorize the change. School officials haven't revealed the vote tally, only that the resolution passed with more than a two-thirds majority.

Meyer would like the school to be more transparent about its plans for Cincinnati. It has yet to answer questions about how much money will be needed for the improvements it outlines in the resolution and in online reports about the restructuring. It also hasn’t revealed how many donors have threatened to withhold funding because of the Cincinnati changes.

“In my opinion, the more openness there is in a religious institution, the more that institution gains broad respect,” Meyer said.