As the Reform movement and the Hebrew Union College ponder their next moves to remain financially viable, one key question emerging is the fate of its flagship, 20-acre campus in Cincinnati.
The Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, owns the land on which the college sits. But its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said it has no contingency plans should the college close. “It’s premature,” he said. “We are not looking at that issue. The college will decide what it does [with the campus]; we are not dealing with it. We don’t want to be seen as interfering.”
Rabbi Yoffie said his organization owns not only the land on which the college sits, but also one of its nine buildings. Although it was only last week that Rabbi David Ellenson, the college’s president, announced that as many as two of the college’s three campuses in the United States might have to close, Rabbi Yoffie said the issue has been discussed before.
“They have four campuses and they have been looking at whether in the long term they are all financially viable,” he said. “We all recognize that there is a question of whether the college’s ultimate configuration would include four campuses.”
The four are in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. The possible closing of campuses is just one of the options to be considered by the college’s 55-member board of governors, five of whom are selected by the URJ’s board of more than 200.
“Our representatives are appointed by us but they are not responsible to the board,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
Thus, he said, although the future of the Cincinnati campus “is of great importance to us and a critical issue, the decision will be made by their board of governors. There is a very strong sense that this is a decision that belongs to the college and its leadership. …
“Both we and the college are struggling with money issues and we all understand that the college is going to have to balance its budget. They have reported that to our board. Individual congregations and rabbis and our board won’t be shy in expressing their wishes to the college leadership, but our board is not going to make a decision on that.”
Rabbi Dan Freedlander, a senior vice president of the URJ, said that a week before the college’s trustees make their decision on June 23, “we will have a weekend board meeting. We won’t instruct them [the college trustees] how to vote, but they will know the tenor of the conversations with our board.”
He said he did not know the value of the Cincinnati campus, the first home of the 134-year-old Reform movement. The URJ is still incorporated in Ohio and it did not move its headquarters to New York until 1949.
“The value of the property is not the driving issue here,” Rabbi Freedlander said. “The health of the institution is much more important than the physical plant.”
Officials at the college insist their financial problems stem from the financial crisis that is affecting everyone. They note that last year the college completed a 10-year fundraising effort that doubled the school’s endowment to $130 million. But because of the slump in the economy, the value of that portfolio has dropped to $85 million. They stress that none of their money was invested with Bernard Madoff, the money manager imprisoned for running the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
As college officials consider their options, they are also weighing the possible sale of the New York campus at 1 W. Fourth St. The six-story red brick school is located on a half-block of property that was bought in 1976 from New York University for $800,000.
Students at HUC here were caught by surprise with the announcement that their campus could be closed.
“We’ve known for many months about the cutbacks at the Union and the reshaping of the way the movement is run,” said Heather Borshof, 32, a fourth-year rabbinical student from Brooklyn. “But we didn’t know what was happening here. I don’t know if they knew this was coming a year ago. I’m so sad to hear of this.”
“The economy is so awful and it not shocking the school affected by it as well,” she added. “A few months ago they told us tuition going up $3,000. The school has been wonderful about scholarships. Much of our tuition is taken care of with scholarships. But we will have to pay the $3,000 increase.”
Raina Siroty, 30, a fourth-year cantorial student here from Los Angeles, questioned whether the same caliber of cantorial teachers could be found elsewhere if the New York campus was closed. The cantorial program is offered only in New York.
“The fantastic faculty would not be able to move because many of them are congregational cantors,” she said. “They are adjunct faculty and they are the ones who make us into the cantors we become. It would be a shame not to be able to study with them.”
Rabbi Freedlander said that even if the decision is made to close the five-acre Los Angeles campus, it is not something that would happen overnight.
“It’s clear to me that if anything happens, it will take several years to implement,” he said.
For that reason, Rabbi Freedlander said the URJ plans to open one of its new four district offices in the HUC building in Los Angeles. This would be despite the fact that the college is reportedly negotiating to sell its property there to the University of Southern California. No price has been mentioned.
The four offices would replace 14 regional offices to be closed May 31 as part of a major reorganization designed to reduce the organization’s operating budget from $24 million to $18 million, excluding its camps and the Religious Action Center. The district offices are to be in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta.
“We’ve been working on a restructuring plan for several years and in November when we realized what was happening to the economy, we speeded it up and made it skinnier than we would have liked,” Rabbi Freedlander said. “We have grown extensively since the 1950s — doubling the number of congregations to 897,” he continued. “But our infrastructure almost quadrupled. We increased to 14 regional offices, up from three in the 1950s.”
As part of the downsizing, the staff will be reduced from 225 to 173, the seven program departments (including Jewish family concerns, education and worship) will be closed and a new entity formed called Congregational Consulting.
For the first time, about 15 employees will work from home.
“Video technology allows us to have conferencing,” Rabbi Freedlander said. “People now don’t know where other people are working from. This change would allow us to retain and hire the best people without regard to geography. That for us is a real change. We’re learning from the rest of the business world.”
In addition, he said support staff is also being changed. “Secretaries, receptionists, people who do typing and filing — virtually none are left,” Rabbi Freedlander said. “Electronic media allows us to do more things ourselves. So instead of secretaries, we will have digital media assistants. They will put a camera on my computer and I will be taught how to make a power point presentation.”
In response to the financial downturn, the movement’s congregations are being given a five percent rebate on their dues this year, 20 percent next year and 10 percent the following year. The dues are payable by June 30. He pointed out that 44 percent of the congregations’ dues are submitted to the college and that the URJ is the college’s “primary funder.” In this fiscal year, that amounted to $15 million, he said, or about 30 percent of the college’s budget.
The college is seeking to pare its budget from nearly $40 million this year to $34 million next year.