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Changes could be coming to Hebrew Union College. Some hope a legal issue will reverse course

About 80 people gather at Hebrew Union College after 6:30 p.m. April 8, 2022 to rally against proposed changes at the institution. They're in front of a building bearing the name of college and crowded on steps as people speak at a microphone against the proposed changes.
Jolene Almendarez
About 80 people gather at Hebrew Union College after 6:30 p.m. April 8, 2022 to rally against proposed changes at the institution.

A rally against changes at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati drew almost 100 people Thursday, while hundreds more have signed a letter disapproving of proposed cost-cutting measures. The most contentious proposed change would stop rabbi ordinations at the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.

"I'm just here to ask that Cincinnati be given the opportunity to see what it can do to help make the Cincinnati HUC campus more than it was and more than it can be or more than it is today, and make it a continuing valuable part of our Jewish community," said Steve Pollak, whose son Sam Pollak is a Rabbi.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has four campuses — one each in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati.

Pollak and other attendees oppose limiting rabbinical ordinations to coastal cities because of Cincinnati's nearly 150-year history in modern Judaism, and its affordability.

Officials at the local Hebrew Union College have declined interview requests, but online documents say there's been a nearly 60% decline in the size of the rabbinical student body locally, from 66 to 27 over the past 16 years. It also says HUC-JIR has seen consistent structural deficits for more than a decade. It faces "a projected record $8.8 million deficit in fiscal year 2022."

The school released a statement saying in part, "Our recommendations touch on issues of profound importance for the future and there is naturally a wide range of heartfelt opinion. The only important thing is that we continue to respect each other’s point of view as we move forward together and we fully expect to be able to continue to advance the evolution of our institution as we also honor our sacred obligations to our community, including our students, alumni, faculty, and donors."

Deciding the 'best fiscal choice'

But the school's reasoning doesn't make sense to those in opposition.

Cantor Alane Katzew was ordained at the New York campus and served as faculty at the Jerusalem campus. Her husband is a faculty member at Cincinnati HUC.

"Cincinnati, as a community, is nationally less expensive for cost of living, and the cost of real estate services, etc. So, this campus is actually the least expensive campus of the three to maintain and for the students; also, for their living expenses and the like," she said. "So on the big picture, the best fiscal choice is to maintain this campus over others, which would be worth millions and millions and millions of dollars in New York and L.A."

The HUC Board of Governors is slated to vote on the issue at a closed meeting in New York Sunday or Monday. If rabbi ordinations are stopped, officials said in online documents, the Cincinnati HUC campus will not close. It will be used as a research institution, keeping the Pines School of Graduate Studies, Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, and the Skirball Collection preserved and running. Board members have declined to comment on the vote.

Some look forward to 'transforming rabbinical education'

More than 350 rabbis signed a letter objecting to the proposed changes in Cincinnati. But not everyone is in opposition.

The school said in a statement leadership consulted with more than 350 stakeholders over two years of strategic planning before releasing its recommendations in mid-October 2021.

"I understand that people are concerned and they wish that it hadn't come to this," said Cleveland Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, who was not officially involved in HUC's strategic planning process.

But the financial difficulties the college is facing and low enrollment numbers can't be ignored.

In reports posted online, school leadership lists various reasons why the New York and Los Angeles campuses are surviving the budget cuts.

For example, both locations have proximity to the biggest Jewish populations in the country: New York has the largest; Los Angeles has the second largest; and Cincinnati ranks at 41.

The coastal schools also have an impact with bigger reach. The Los Angeles campus has a partnership with the University of South California, which yields about $1.5 million annually. In New York, the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music relies heavily on "the large number of cantors and Reform synagogues in the greater New York area for faculty and fieldwork placements."

Nosanchuk also says stopping rabbinical ordinations in Cincinnati gives the institution time to focus on their low-residency program plans. Low-residency rabbinical programs allow those interested in becoming a rabbi the chance to do some of their training online.

Launching the low-residency program is a matter of equity, and it allows people to study without having to relocate. He says it's the "first step in transforming rabbinical education."

"I wish that the resources were available to offer this low-residency track in Cincinnati and New York and Los Angeles," he said. "But there aren't unlimited resources."

The last hope for locals lies in the law

The great-great granddaughter of HUC Founder Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Louise Bettman, was also in attendance at Thursday's rally. She says she's Wise's last living relative in Cincinnati and the campus has always meant so much to her family and the community.

A woman with gray hair and thick framed glasses speaks at a microphone with people standing behind her on steps. She's wearing a blue jacket.
Jolene Almendarez
The great-great granddaughter of the HUC Founder Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Louise Bettman, thanked people for supporting keeping rabbi ordinations at the campus.

She thanked people for coming out to support keeping rabbi ordinations at the campus. Though she declined interviews, she mentioned a legal document that might give the Cincinnati HUC a chance at keeping its rabbinical program.

Marvin Kraus, whose son is a rabbi, explained the document. He said the Cincinnati HUC consolidated with the New York Jewish Institute of Religion in 1950.

"It said that the consolidated incorporation shall permanently maintain rabbinical schools in Cincinnati, as well as in New York," he said.

The Ohio Attorney General is responsible for enforcing the consolidation terms.

HUC released a statement to WVXU saying, in part, "We are mindful of, and will comply with, our legal obligations, and we understand the Attorney General’s authority. Our recommendations touch on issues of profound importance for the future and there is naturally a wide range of heartfelt opinion."

A man wearing a green polo and leather jacket stands at a microphone to speak about proposed changes at HUC. People crowd around him on steps leading up to a building with the institution's name on it.
Jolene Almendarez
Matthew Kraus speaks to people at a rally on April 8, 2022 at Hebrew Union College.

Kraus' son, Matthew Kraus, also spoke during the rally last night, opposing the changes.

"El Na Refa Na La. God heal us now. We acknowledge that there are some challenges to this institution, that there is sickness that we have to address. We acknowledge that … [But] If we cannot create in a seminary, the ideal Jewish community, how can we expect its graduates to create those kinds of communities once they leave the seminary?" he asked. "So the solution is not closing down things. But it's immersion in these principles of the study of Judaism, of the engagement with Judaism, and of kindness, of love towards each other. "

Corrected: April 8, 2022 at 12:22 PM EDT
This article inaccurately reported where Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk is located. He's based out of Cleveland, not Columbus.