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Changes to Hebrew Union College Cincinnati

Enrollment at Hebrew Union College Cincinnati has steadily declined. HUC-JIR Cincinnati may close their residential rabbinical program.

Jonathan Greenberg
April 07, 2022
Warren LeMay/Flickr
Warren LeMay/Flickr

The story of American Reform Judaism can be reviewed simply by walking up one side and down the other of the central hallway at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s main classroom building in Cincinnati. On those walls hang the pictures of every graduating class since 1883 (including mine in 2006) and every faculty member who taught us. Looking at those more than 130 class pictures, you can see when the movement was in a state of expansion or contraction, how attitudes have shifted about wearing ritual items like kippot and tallitot, which social norms have changed, and how the role of women has evolved. Our challenges, triumphs, disappointments, and struggles are all right there on display.

That hallway—lined with the classrooms where generations of our leaders have learned about Torah and humanity—is located, perhaps counterintuitively but surely luckily, in Cincinnati, right where the founders of the movement breathed life into it and where generations of dedicated men and women kept it alive.

Now, a small group of people seeks to shutter the birthplace not just of the seminary they claim to serve, but of the movement whose future has been entrusted to them. If the board of HUC-JIR allows it, we will trade yesterday for tomorrow and wind up with neither.

HUC-JIR (“the College”) consists of a Rabbinical School, a School of Sacred Music that trains cantors, a School of Education, a School of Jewish Non-Profit Management, a School of Graduate Studies, a D. Min. program in Pastoral Care, museums, libraries, other resources for the study of Judaism including the American Jewish Archives. But in a few days, the Board of Governors of the College will meet to consider a strategic plan that will, in the kind of euphemistic language one might expect from politicians or used car salesmen, “restructure the Rabbinical School.” In other words, after nearly a century and a half, they’ll stop training rabbis in Cincinnati.

The College was founded by Isaac Mayer Wise, the Cincinnati rabbi whose vision is considered to have founded the American Reform movement and who was vital in creating its institutions, in Cincinnati in 1875. At the time, Cincinnati was one of the country’s largest and most significant cities. The College opened a New York campus by merging with the Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR) in 1950. JIR had been established by Stephen S. Wise in 1922 over disagreements in the Reform movement about Zionism and the freedom of clergy to speak their minds from the pulpit. The College further opened a Los Angeles campus in 1954 and the Dodgers followed them there four years later—at least, that’s how I learned it.

In 1963, the College opened a campus just inside the Green Line in divided Jerusalem. For a movement that had, at first, been officially anti-Zionist, it sent an unmistakable message that, the State of Israel having been born, American Reform Jews would participate in her survival and growth as a center for Jewish life. Sixty years ago, it seems, the leaders of the College understood that choices about campus location send messages.

Throughout this period of expansion, the College—like the American Jewish community—thrived. It was ably led by world-renowned archaeologist Rabbi Nelson Glueck and boasted a faculty roster that included titans of American Jewish scholarship. It educated a student body that would go on to distinguish itself in service to the American Jewish community. It created and grew an extraordinary collection of Jewish literature and Judaica, housed today at the Klau Library in, you guessed it, Cincinnati. It expanded outward from southwest Ohio because its product was unquestionably excellent. And it had no greater benefactor than the Jewish community of Cincinnati (Glueck’s hometown, as a matter of fact), which relied on its institutional heft and supported it—and supports it still—with reverence and generosity.

But, today, the College has undeniably fallen on hard times. According to its own publications, HUC has identified what it believes are the major problems: Enrollment at the College has steadily declined in the last 15 years; the College runs a large and growing budget deficit; other schools calling themselves seminaries have been founded in recent years and congregations seem willing to hire their graduates; and Jewish movement particularism and Jewish religious identity have both waned dramatically.

Opinions differ as to the causes of these problems and/or their solutions, but there is general agreement that these are, in fact, problems. (They are not, however, the biggest problems. We’ll get to those later.)

And so, the leadership of the College has proposed to the Board of Governors to close the residential rabbinical program in Cincinnati, turn that campus into some kind of glorified retreat center, and “develop a low-residency clergy program” there. This is the relevant passage from the strategic plan:

We contend that a Rabbinical School with residential programs on two campuses and reimagined rabbinical education in Cincinnati will strengthen our flagship program and best enable us to continue attracting high-caliber students and educating outstanding rabbis.

It is, to be kind, debatable whether or not the College has been “attracting high-caliber students” or “educating outstanding rabbis.” But again, more on that later.

To bolster this contention, the College supplied us with a lot of disheartening information, none of which points to shutting down the Rabbinical School in Cincinnati as an obvious or even plausibly efficacious solution. The year I was ordained, 2006, there were 214 rabbinical students across the three American campuses of HUC-JIR. Last year, that number was 134. Next year, it will be 108. This is part of a larger decline at all non-Orthodox seminaries but seems to have hit the College the hardest. Those 108 students are disproportionately sent to the coastal campuses: 44 in New York, 44 in Los Angeles, and only 20 in Cincinnati. It is worth pointing out that the distribution has changed greatly since I was at the College, when students were assigned to a city and simply expected (with some appeals and grumbling) to matriculate to the assigned campus.

The strategic plan includes an extensive defense of consolidating rabbinical education to fewer campuses. None of those arguments, however, addresses why it should be Cincinnati that gets the ax. For that, you have to go to the Location Recommendation Memo.

You can read the memo for yourself, but it’s very difficult to do so without concluding that the primary finding is this: We have to get smaller and we don’t want to leave New York and Los Angeles because they’re New York and Los Angeles and Cincinnati is, well, barely separated from Kentucky by a river. And a brown river at that. Bless their hearts, the College tries to make it about partnerships and Jewish vibrancy but, really, it’s about Cincinnati being in the Midwest, literally on the Mason-Dixon Line, and the 36th-largest Designated Market Area in the country—just behind Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina. Would you want to go to Jew school in Greenville-Spartanburg? Of course not.

The documents prepared by the College to justify its decision are full of gaslighting and manipulation, which generally means the author intends to obscure rather than clarify. At one point, the College laments that, yes, the American Jewish Archives will be harmed by the decision, but “fewer than 17 percent of all researchers at the AJA have a connection to HUC-JIR” and “the actual number of faculty and students in Cincinnati who use the AJA for research is much smaller.” See? The students don’t even use the AJA! Perhaps that’s true (it’s not—I used the archives). But imagine that all 108 students at the College’s three campuses and all 28 faculty members were consolidated to Cincinnati instead of the coasts. Would the percentage of AJA users who are HUC-JIR students and faculty go up or down? Want more students and faculty to use the world-class resources at the AJA that you’re never going to be able to afford to move? Here’s an idea: Stop sending them to New York.

Another reason for scaling back the College’s geographical reach is financial. Here, the College engages in magical thinking and fantasy about fundraising. The decision is not, they insist, a financial one. They will still have to maintain the property in Cincinnati. There will be little cost savings. But they’ll be able to raise more money. What’s stopping them from raising that money now is unclear. But it’s true that the College doesn’t raise enough money. Based on HUC’s own figures, $18 million in restricted funds may be at risk if the proposal is approved and another $11 million for the Klau and AJA. Many donors are driven by regional considerations—the Cincinnati campus is an enormous part of non-Orthodox Midwestern and Southern Jewry—and consider the closure of the rabbinical program to be violative of their donor intent. And there is a sneaking suspicion among many, myself included, that this plan is merely the first step in closing down or selling off the Cincinnati campus altogether. The proposed plans for the campus are completely unserious.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “OK, but New York is New York and Los Angeles is Los Angeles and Cincinnati is basically one Chiefs game away from being Kansas City and has fewer Jews than Hartford.” Fair enough. And if one could only learn Torah by dancing Friday night away on the Upper West Side or getting a steak at Shiloh’s, you’d have a point.

Now, rabbinical students definitely need formative experiences and exposure to a breadth of Jewish life and practice that isn’t native to Cincinnati. That’s why we spend our first year in Jerusalem. After that, what a rabbinical student really needs is the time and space and resources to learn deeply. They need to immerse themselves in text and philosophy and debate with other students and faculty, which can be done—in fact, has been done for nearly a century and a half—in Cincinnati.

This brings us to the big problems HUC-JIR faces. Chief among them: The product sucks. This is not to demean the quality or scholarship of the current faculty. Far from it! Thank God many of my beloved teachers are still trying valiantly to raise up rabbis. I merely point out that the institutions of the movement have swung radically from concerning themselves with creating a thriving American Judaism to concerning themselves with radical leftist politics masquerading as Judaism. The College now churns out a growing cadre of activists and a shrinking number of knowledgeable Jewish scholars. In fact, the College—again, not the faculty—doesn’t seem particularly interested in producing scholars. HUC-JIR now sees itself as a professional school in competition with a handful of other coastal professional schools for the same group of candidates, typified by bland, conformist slacktivists without an original thought in their heads.

This is the new Reform orthodoxy. You may know a Reform rabbi who totally defies this description. I’m blessed to know several. But, if you know many Reform rabbis and you’re honest, you know a lot more who embody it.

Another problem is that the College has forgotten what it is and what it exists to do. A fact my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Mark Washofsky, reminded us of in a spectacular, surprisingly in-your-face Founders Day address just a few weeks ago.

[Isaac Mayer Wise] intentionally modeled the Hebrew Union College not after the traditional yeshiva of which there were some tremendous examples in the late 19th century, but after the German Rabbiner-Seminar—the academic rabbinical schools of Germany—which in turn were modeled after the German university. Measured by way of maasei, of action, our founder’s vision was to create an institution that would educate rabbis according to university standards. The highest prevailing standards of, wait for it, academic excellence.

Today, a growing subsection of the Jewish community—including those of us who desperately wish it weren’t so—believe HUC-JIR offers a spiritually meaningless, academically frivolous product preparing candidates for a declining set of job prospects in a dying movement.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Board of Governors doesn’t have to settle for this nonsense anymore. HUC-JIR can choose to be a center of serious Jewish learning again instead of the professional school it’s become. But it needs leadership that stops paying lip-service to serious Jewish learning and starts prioritizing it. It needs leaders who envision the ideal congregant of 2072 and start cultivating, recruiting, and training that congregant’s rabbis now. They can solve their budgetary problemsand respect donor intent by consolidating the rabbinical program in Cincinnati. They won’t. But they should. This is the market differentiation the College has been looking for. It’s right in front of their faces. The College—indeed the entire movement—needs to reorient itself away from the production of political activists and toward the production of literate Jews.

Do these things, and the movement will survive because it will deserve to and because it will produce the kind of leaders who will rise to these and future challenges. Selling off our history—failing to preserve our archives and our sacred bibliography—may buy us another day. But the cost is too high and the reprieve too short.

Jonathan Greenberg, a 2006 ordinee of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program in Cincinnati, is the Director of Freedom Initiatives at the Jack Miller Family Foundation.