Hebrew Union College prides itself on being open and pluralistic. But some Reform rabbinical students say the reality contradicts this vision.
Earlier this year, word spread that the president of Hebrew Union College had been approached by a potential funder who wanted to endow the school with a chair for a politically conservative scholar. Like countless other religious and academic institutions, HUC had suffered tremendously in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008. Less than three years ago, the seminary faced a $3 million deficit. Professors’ salaries had been cut, tuition had been raised, and reports surfaced that the school was considering closing two of its three American campuses. The school “was in the most challenging position it has faced in its history—even more so than during the Great Depression,” HUC President David Ellenson wrote at the time.
And yet, the conservative chair never materialized—a fact that came as a disappointment, if not a surprise, to some. Although American Judaism’s largest religious denomination prides itself on being a big tent—part of HUC’s mission statement is to apply “the open and pluralistic spirit of the Reform movement to the study of the great issues of Jewish life and thought”—certain students and observers are sensing a troubling trend that directly contradicts this vision, particularly on the matter of Israel.
“While I loved my time there and deeply respected my professors, I found that HUC was not comfortable exploring or discussing anything politically that wasn’t left,” said Rabbi Samantha Kahn, who received her ordination from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles in 2011 and is now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. “I definitely struggled with it, and I was hurt by the lack of openness and the anger toward positions of center and right when it came to Israel and foreign affairs.”
To be sure, most observers point out that the political atmosphere at HUC does not comprehensively reflect the reality of the wider Reform movement. But the differences can sometimes be unusually stark. Kahn, who worked at the Hillel at the University of Miami before entering HUC, recently recalled the “strange transition” she experienced: “As a Hillel professional, it seemed that I was [politically] very left. All of a sudden, at HUC I wasn’t left anymore, but very right. The truth is, being in Houston, I feel more left again. I pay attention to the New Israel Fund and read Haaretz. But I’m also still involved with and appreciative of AIPAC and Hadassah and am glad to see them still thriving in Houston. At HUC, AIPAC and Hadassah were four-letter words. They were the devil.”
HUC—like all educational institutions—is a bubble of sorts, and it is often difficult to find genuine ideological pluralism inside any such closed environment, especially on a subject as complicated as Israel. Nevertheless, some have grown concerned about the ways the political culture of HUC could influence the future texture of Reform Judaism and the broader American Jewish community.
“You could probably do the same story at Yeshiva University and you might get the exact opposite political trend,” David Wolpe, the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, said in an interview this week. “Having said that, the difference between right-wing support of Israel and left-wing support of Israel is that left-wing support much more easily morphs into indifference to and abandonment of Israel. That’s what the left wing has to guard against.”
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College has always been a proudly liberal institution. It has brought religious leaders through its ranks that have played integral roles in nearly every major social movement of the past century—from its social-action mandate in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform to the March on Washington in 1963. Rabbi Jerome Davidson, a longtime pulpit rabbi from Great Neck, N.Y., who teaches a required course on social action at the seminary, seems to exemplify a certain model of rabbi-as-political-leader popular at the institution. “As far as I’m concerned, a rabbi should be able to get up on his pulpit and speak about why it’s necessary to have stronger gun-control laws or why the death penalty should be abolished or curtailed or strengthened or whatever she or he thinks Judaism teaches us,” Davidson said in an interview this week. And to his mind, the politics that should be transmitted from the pulpit are very specific.
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