CINCINNATI — Hebrew Union College has ordained rabbis in Cincinnati for 147 years. But it may not run that streak past 150 under a proposal from the seminary’s administrators.
The board of governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will vote in mid-April on a proposal to restructure its rabbinical school with residential programs in New York and Los Angeles only. It would “reimagine the Cincinnati campus as a center for research and educational engagement.”
That means its graduate programs would remain. So would its world-class research assets that draw scholars from all over the globe, including the Klau Library, Skirball Museum and American Jewish Archives.
“It is very important to note that our recommendations do not contemplate closing any campus,” President Andrew Rehfeld said in a statement. “We also emphasize that the board has not yet made its decision, and we will continue to engage with our community, keeping them informed as our process moves forward.”
Rehfeld spent the week in Cincinnati, discussing the restructuring with stunned students and faculty. The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati issued a statement citing the “incredible impact” of the nation’s oldest Jewish seminary, but not expressly calling for the board to reject the proposal.
“We are saddened by the potential loss of future volunteers, teachers, scholars, and friends – people who enrich the lives of so many in Cincinnati while calling HUC their home,” said the statement from CEO Danielle Minson. “Being immersed in our collaborative community equally enhances the students’ learning and experience. We hope the HUC Board considers this impact when voting about the future of our campus.”
Founded in 1875 as the first permanent Jewish institution of higher learning in the United States, Hebrew Union College is widely viewed as the birthplace of American Reform Judaism. Its graduates led Jewish congregations all over the Midwest and southern states while its academic rigor led to the discovery, preservation and public availability of priceless historic artifacts. The Dead Sea Scrolls were photographed, cataloged and made available to scholars by HUC in the 1990s.
HUC merged with New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950. It opened a Los Angeles campus in 1954 and a Jerusalem campus in 1963. But changes in demographics and a decline in church participation in all faiths has taken a toll on Jewish institutes of higher learning.
Documents posted online to explain HUC’s proposed restructuring cite budget deficits, declining enrollment and a 2021 sexual harassment investigation as “key drivers” of the decision.
“After sustaining annual structural deficits of $1.5 million per year on average since at least 2010, HUC JIR now faces a projected record $8.8 million deficit in fiscal year 2022,” wrote Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss in an 8-page essay about the strategic planning process.
“While we remain the largest progressive seminary in the country, the number of rabbinic students enrolled at HUC-JIR declined by 37% over the past 15 years,” said the 1,265-word summary of recommendations.
The online summary said the restructuring would help administrators address problems identified by the Morgan Lewis law firm, which documented decades of sexual harassment, gender bias and racial discrimination at HUC-JIR campuses in New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati.
“While Cincinnati is lauded as the center of scholarship and academia, many described it as having an engrained culture of favoritism and politics and as being the center of the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality at HUC,” said the Morgan Lewis report.
Despite assurances of a continuing presence in Cincinnati, students at the Clifton Avenue campus fear the restructuring is a first step toward closure.
“That is what everyone suspects,” said Joel Wildermuth, president of HUC’s Graduate Student Association. “A scenario that they purportedly considered – but they will not show us the details – was to consolidate everything on the New York campus.”
Rabbinical student Maddy Anderson said a proposal to close the Cincinnati campus was first proposed during the 2008 recession.
“It has felt to us like this has been in the works for a while,” Anderson said. “We’ve watched several professors retire without being replaced … The staff has been downsized over and over and over again.”
Anderson said Cincinnati’s Jewish organizations will lose a valuable employment resource if the rabbinical school closes. She currently serves as interim assistant director for the Jewish Community Relations Council under a fellowship program that partially underwrites her salary.
“The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati provides grants to work all throughout the community,” Anderson said. “It’s guaranteed income throughout their rabbinical studies. It will be very difficult to find those jobs in New York and Los Angeles.”
HUC alumnus Michael Graves worries that shutting down the rabbinical program in Cincinnati will lead to future cuts in research and graduate programs.
“The Klau Library, Skirball Museum and American Jewish Archives are remarkable treasures of Jewish learning,” said Graves, a Wheaton College professor and president of the Pines School of Graduate Studies Alumni Association. “If they were to remain in Cincinnati, how would they continue to function and be growing collections that are used properly if there are not students there? And if there are not rabbinical students there, would it make financial sense to have enough faculty present in Cincinnati to have a graduate school there?”
In his statement to WCPO, Rehfeld described HUC’s research assets as “precious resources,” but did not directly address Graves’ questions.
“We envision our Cincinnati campus continuing to be a vital center of learning and scholarship” that “offers meaningful educational experiences for our students, nationally and throughout the Midwest,” Rehfeld said.