CINCINNATI — Ohio’s attorney general “may investigate” Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion if its board votes to close its residential rabbinical program in Cincinnati, according to a letter sent to college officials this month -this.
It’s one of many ways public pressure is mounting against a cost-cutting plan that emerged last month and will be voted on this weekend.
Founded in 1875 as the first permanent Jewish institution of higher learning in the United States, Hebrew Union College became the intellectual heart of Reform Judaism in North America in the 20th century. Its graduates have led Jewish congregations throughout the Midwest and southern states, while its academic rigor has led to the discovery, preservation, and public availability of priceless historical artifacts.
But declining enrollment and reduced contributions from Jewish congregations have led to rising budget shortfalls — estimated at $8.8 million for fiscal year 2022.
So, New York-based college administrators want to convert the seminary into a “low-residency” program that rabbinical students will visit while earning their degrees in New York and Los Angeles. This could violate the 1950 merger agreement that created HUC-JIR, which states that “the consolidated society shall permanently maintain rabbinical schools” in Cincinnati and New York.
And that’s where the Ohio Chief Legal Officer fits in.
“The Attorney General is responsible for ensuring that charities honor the intent of benefactors and serve the interests of intended beneficiaries,” says the letter from Daniel Fausey, head of the charity law section of the AG, to four college officials. “The Attorney General may investigate these matters on his own initiative or in response to a complaint.”
The college did not respond to questions about this story, but its “location recommendation” says the goal is to expand the Cincinnati campus.
“Using a combination of online courses and intensive in-person classes in Cincinnati taught by faculty who stay in Cincinnati and faculty from other campuses, this program would share the same goals of academic excellence, professional and spiritual training, of leadership development and personal integrity as our full-time residential program,” the document states. “This proposal is intended to dramatically increase the number of people who visit the Cincinnati campus and experience all it has to offer.”
As WCPO previously reported, students and alumni fear the changes could lead to the closure of the Cincinnati campus.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown also weighs in.
“If Cincinnati’s university program were to close, it would be a huge loss for the city’s Jewish community and for the region as a whole,” Brown said. “My office stands ready to assist in any effort to assist HUC in any way possible as HUC navigates the difficult decisions ahead.”
More than 360 HUC alumni have signed an open letter opposing the plan.
“We are confident that the current plan will fall short of the financial and educational goals necessary for the future of HUC-JIR,” the letter states. “Furthermore, we are certain that this plan will have innumerable and irreversible tragic consequences. This plan has already alienated a significant portion of alumni, who not only personally support the College-Institute, but are also instrumental in identifying, training, and recruiting potential students, governors, and sources of philanthropic support. .
Perhaps the most moving defense from the Cincinnati campus came from Mark Washofsky, professor emeritus of Jewish law at HUC. The unassuming scholar drew a standing ovation from a crowd that gathered for the school’s annual Founder’s Day event on March 24.
“We live in a time of shrinking and shrinking, of synagogue mergers and low enrollment. The college can no longer afford a 20th century institutional footprint,” Washofsky said. “These buildings you see here, they’re sitting right in the middle of flyover country. But if the ax should fall, what about this vision, this history of academic excellence? Is this also a 20th century thing? No, no, don’t worry. We can handle this. Once we have moved and downsized, I mean downsized, our operation, we will simply apply the “academic excellence” label to whatever remains.