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Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College could stop ordaining rabbis, blurring the future of the institution

Hebrew Union College is considering whether it should continue ordaining rabbis.
Warren LeMay
Wikimedia Commons
Hebrew Union College is considering whether it should continue ordaining rabbis.

Cincinnati is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North America. That's in no small part because of the founding of Hebrew Union College in 1875 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. It trains rabbis how to teach Reform Judaism — using the vernacular and modernizing education practices. Its future is unclear as the school's Board of Governors considers whether to stop ordaining rabbis at the institution.

The schools leadership is suggesting the end of the residential rabbinical program in Cincinnati after consulting with more than 350 stakeholders during two years of strategic planning, some of whom opposed the proposal.

Professor Emeritus Mark Washofsky is one of many people who are against the change, saying it overlooks Jewish people in the Midwest and may not necessarily be a huge cost-saving measure.

"Is it a complete surprise? No, I mean, if anybody was paying attention, it's not a surprise. We've known this could be coming for some time," he said.

Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religionhas three campuses in the United States. The other two are in Los Angeles and New York. One is located in Jerusalem. Washofsky says the school, while founded in Cincinnati, has often considered whether to continue fully operating the Midwest institution.

"One of the issues that's brought up to justify a big change like this is that we don't need three campuses. So, there are financial claims being made, and there's also this idea that the classes are too small on any one of the campuses," Washofsky said.

According to the college, there's been a nearly 60% decline in the size of the rabbinical student body in Cincinnati from 2006 to this year, from 66 to 27. It also says, in documents online, that HUC-JIR has seen structural deficits of $1.5 million per year, on average, since at least 2010. That's caused the institution to face "a projected record $8.8 million deficit in fiscal year 2022."

Washofsky and other alumni recognize the financial problems the college is facing, but they said in a public letter to the institution that the school has not done its due diligence of considering other cost-cutting measures that could be taken instead.

The letter is signed by almost 300 alumni and says, in part, "Faculty and rabbis in the field, who have thought long and hard about options for the College Institute, have been sidelined without serious consideration when they offer alternative approaches to the current proposal."

It says the recommendation to no longer ordain rabbis does not have a serious viability study, jeopardizes the future of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, and threatens the future of the integrity of Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, and the Skirball Collection.

The institution currently has the second largest Jewish library in the world.

Hebrew Union College declined an interview about the possible changes, but released a brief statement by President Andrew Rehfeld.

It says the university spent two years on its strategic plan, researching and meeting with hundreds of stakeholders about the challenges the school is facing.

"It is very important to note that our recommendations do not contemplate closing any campus. We envision our Cincinnati campus continuing to be a vital center of learning and scholarship that leverages our precious resources, including the Klau Library, American Jewish Archives, and Skirball Museum, and offers meaningful educational experiences for our students, nationally and throughout the Midwest," the statement says.

It goes on to say the board has not made a decision about the changes and plans to keep engaging with the community.

The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati also declined to be interviewed about the changes. The organization released a brief statement lamenting the potential loss of the residential rabbinical student program at HUC.

It says, in part:

The Federation, countless other organizations, both locally and around the world, and the Cincinnati community have benefited from the knowledge, passion and wisdom of rabbis educated at the home of Reform Judaism. 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. 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.

If HUC moves forward with the change, the school may be used as a research center or to house rabbis doing weeks-long studies in-person.

But Washofsky says, "All of these other plans are extremely vague because they don't know what to do with the physical campus just yet."

The Board of Governors is scheduled to vote on the issue in April.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.