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Ohio might investigate Hebrew Union College restructuring

Attorney General one of dozens questioning plan
Posted: 10:26 AM, Apr 04, 2022
Updated: 2022-04-05 12:59:20-04

CINCINNATI — Ohio’s Attorney General “may investigate” Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion if its board of governors votes to close its residential rabbinical program in Cincinnati, according to a letter sent to college officials this month.

It’s one of several ways public pressure is mounting against a cost-cutting plan that emerged last month and will come to a vote this weekend.

Founded in 1875 as the first permanent Jewish institution of higher learning in the United States, Hebrew Union College became the intellectual heart of Reform Judaism in 20th Century North America. 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.

But declining enrollment and reduced contributions from Jewish congregations have led to rising budget deficits – estimated at $8.8 million in the 2022 fiscal year.

So, the college’s New York-based administrators want to convert the seminary to a “low-residency” program that rabbinical students will visit while earning their degrees in New York and Los Angeles. That could violate the 1950 merger agreement that created HUC-JIR, which says the “consolidated corporation shall permanently maintain rabbinical schools” in Cincinnati and New York.

And that’s where Ohio’s chief legal officer fits in.

“The Attorney General is responsible for ensuring that charities honor the intent of benefactors and serve the interest of intended beneficiaries,” said the letter from Daniel Fausey, chief of the AG’s Charitable Law Section, to four college officials. “The Attorney General may investigate these matters on his own initiative or in response to a complaint.”

The college did not respond to questions about this story, but its “location recommendation” says the goal is to grow the Cincinnati campus.

“Using a combination of online classes and in-person intensives in Cincinnati taught by faculty who remain in Cincinnati and faculty from other campuses, this program would share the same goals of academic excellence, professional and spiritual formation, leadership development, and personal integrity as our full-time residential program,” the document states. “This proposal aims to significantly expand the number of people who visit the Cincinnati campus and experience all it has to offer.”

Hebrew Union College students
Hebrew Union College students Edie Yautis and Rebecca Benoff

As WCPO previously reported, students and alumni worry that the changes would lead to a closure of the Cincinnati campus.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is also weighing in.

“If the academic program in Cincinnati was to close it would be a huge loss to the city’s Jewish community and to the region overall,” Brown said. “My office stands ready to assist in any efforts to help HUC in any way that I can as HUC navigates the challenging decisions ahead.”

More than 360 HUC alumni have signed an open letter opposing the plan.

“We are convinced that the current plan will not achieve the financial and educational goals that are needed for the future of HUC-JIR,” the letter states. “Moreover, we are certain that this plan will result in innumerable and irreversible tragic outcomes. This plan has already alienated a significant portion of the alumni, who not only support the College-Institute personally, but are also instrumental in identifying, nurturing, and recruiting potential students, governors, and sources of philanthropic support.”

Perhaps the most stirring defense of the Cincinnati campus came from Mark Washofsky, a professor emeritus of Jewish Law at HUC. The unassuming scholar brought a standing ovation from a crowd that assembled for the school’s annual founder’s day event on March 24.

Ohio historical marker for Hebrew Union College
A Ohio historical marker for Hebrew Union College

“We’re living in an age of contraction and cut back, of synagogue mergers and low enrollment. The college can no longer afford a 20th century institutional footprint,” Washofsky said. “These buildings you see here, they sit right smack dab in the middle of flyover country. But if the axe has gotta fall, what about that vision, that thing about academic excellence? Is that also a 20th century thing? No, no, not to worry. We can handle that. Once we’ve relocated and downsized, I mean rightsized, our operation, we’ll simply apply the label, ‘academic excellence’ to whatever’s left.”