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Hebrew Union College board votes to sunset historic Cincinnati rabbinical program

Matthew Kraus speaks to people at a rally on April 8, 2022 at Hebrew Union College.
Jolene Almendarez
Matthew Kraus speaks to people at a rally on April 8, 2022 at Hebrew Union College.

The Hebrew Union College Board of Governors voted Monday to sunset Cincinnati's historic rabbinical program by the end of the 2026 academic year.

The controversial decision comes along with other changes officials say will help address a financial deficit and modernize rabbinical school options. Hundreds of rabbis and others in the local and national Jewish community have publicly opposed the change.

The school said in a statement, "This difficult step was approved by over a two-thirds majority of the Board. We recognize the pain that this decision causes and expect to take the appropriate time and care to implement this decision in a sensitive and constructive manner, in collaboration with our community."

The school will not close and officials confirmed academic resources at the Cincinnati campus — the Klau Library, American Jewish Archives, and Skirball Museum — will continue to be used for research purposes.

The change means HUC will only ordain rabbis at its New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem campuses.

The board also voted to develop a low-residency hybrid rabbinical program and cantorial program. It will allow prospective rabbis to study online without requiring them to move to the coastal cities.

A press release from HUC says the mentioned changes are the first step of more "comprehensive decisions to come."

Officials have repeatedly denied requests for interviews about the decision.

In online documents, the school cited a record $8.8 million projected deficit in the 2022 fiscal year. It's part of a decade-long financial decline at the national institution. It was also noted the Cincinnati campus has a nearly 60% decline in the size of the rabbinical student body locally, from 66 to 27 over the past 16 years.

School officials say New York and Los Angeles have the first and second largest Jewish populations in the country. Cincinnati ranks 41st.

But many said the historic Cincinnati rabbinical program should not be on the chopping block. It's the birthplace of American Reform Judaism, started by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1875. Reform Judaism teaches the religion in the vernacular and uses modernized education practices.

During a rally against the change Thursday, demonstrators said it didn't make financial sense for the Cincinnati campus to close because it's the least expensive campus to operate.

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."

Almost a hundred people attended the rally. Some say they're expecting a legal battle opposing the change due to a consolidation agreement filed with the state of Ohio. The agreement says a rabbinical program must permanently continue to operate in Cincinnati and New York.

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

HUC did not address the issue in the news release about the vote. But the organization said in a statement last week, "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."

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.