Faced with the possible closing of their seminary here, faculty and alumni of the Reform movement’s New York campus have mounted a campaign to highlight its strengths and explain why it would be a mistake to shut down the campus in the Jewish capital of the country.
The effort comes on the eve of Sunday’s meeting here of the board of governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The board is to begin considering options designed to close the school’s widening budget gap and to make a final decision June 23.
To help them decide, The Jewish Week has learned, the faculty here drafted a series of suggestions that includes closing all three of HUC’s American campuses and relocating a combined school elsewhere
in the New York area, according to Rabbi Michael Chernick, the faculty chairman here.
“We have the facts and figures on what it would cost with the different scenarios,” he said.
Rabbi Chernick said the faculty is working with an outside consulting firm, Bell & Trice Enterprises in Washington, D.C., to develop the suggestions.
About three weeks before Passover, he said, two faculty representatives from each campus — New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem — began weekly teleconference meetings to “formulate a statement as to what our vision is for the college and what we think it has to have in order for it to be a decent academic, intellectual and spiritual center for the Reform movement and the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Chernick added that the faculty of each of the three American campuses developed a statement presenting a “rationale for preserving each campus.”
Among those weighing in is Rabbi Rick Jacobs, spiritual leader of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, a 1982 graduate. He said that after studying two years in Los Angeles he had to complete his studies at either the Cincinnati or New York campuses.
“It was clear that New York was the place,” he said. “I wanted to study in one of the most vital Jewish cities of the diaspora. New York is a hub of Jewish activism, learning and creativity. I wanted to study with the faculty in New York and to experience some of the most cutting-edge synagogues in the world. A rabbinic education is not simply within the walls of the seminary but in the vitality of the community that surrounds it.”
Asked about the 20-acre Cincinnati campus, Rabbi Jacobs described it as a “remarkable campus with all its assets.” But, he said, “it’s in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is not in the pulse center of contemporary Jewish life.”
Among the options proposed by the New York faculty is one in which the college and the congregational arm of the movement — as well as its rabbinic, cantorial and educational associations — would all move into one building to create a Center for Reform Judaism.
Because the New York campus, located in a six-story building on half a block on West Fourth Street, is too small to accommodate all of the students and faculty of a merged institution, Rabbi Chernick said the current building should be sold and a new site found.
“There is consideration of moving out of ‘pricey’ New York City to areas in New Jersey, Westchester and within the five boroughs,” the faculty paper said.
Rabbi Chernick said areas of New Jersey such as Hoboken and Jersey City are among the sites that should be considered. He said that Aaron Panken, the college’s vice president for strategic initiatives, is working with realtors to find sites.
Rabbi Chernick said the trustees’ decision has to be based on more than finances.
“Is a college that is brick and mortar but has nothing in it — that is gutted intellectually and spiritually — worth keeping?” he asked. “Is it worth selling the soul of the institution? I don’t think there is a member of the board who would want to do that.”
The dean of HUC’s New York campus, Rabbi Shirley Idelson, sounded a similar theme, saying: “New York is the center of Jewish life and culture in this country.
“Our faculty reflects the richness of Jewish life in New York. … A significant number of rabbis and educators here serve as mentors and teachers, particularly in the realm of professional development.
Our students serve in well over 100 positions in synagogues, organizations, hospitals and schools in the New York area, and in small congregations across the Northeast. We believe the ability to take advantage of all this makes them better rabbis.”
Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of HUC’s School of Sacred Music, noted that the New York campus is the only site for HUC’s cantorial school because “it has the richest pool of cantors.”
“Some 75 percent of our faculty are adjuncts — coaches who come once or twice a week — and teachers of our repertoire courses,” he said. “So we have a chance to offer a full range of cantorial styles — from the traditional to folk. Debbie Friedman is on our staff. Our students get a very rich exposure to all of those styles by the practitioners of those styles.”
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, spiritual leader of Central Synagogue, said he has taught periodically at the school and believes “New York is important because it is a compass that attracts students and is in the greatest center of Jewish life in the country.”
Rabbi Jonathan Stein of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan noted that most national headquarters of major Jewish organizations are here and that “the largest fundraising in the Jewish community is done here.”
“For all the growth around the country, New York remains the center of American Jewish life,” he said.
“To give up a presence here, the ability to be a player and to sit at the table and be a part of that scene would be very difficult and tend to lower our stature.”
“I love Cincinnati,” Rabbi Stein added. “I have an affinity for the college and the faculty and the city. The presence of the library and the American Jewish Archives there are significant. They are part of the jewels in the crown of the HUC and need to be preserved.”
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC, was quoted last week as saying he could envision the library and archives remaining in Cincinnati but the academic operations moving. Cincinnati would then become an “intellectual center for research.”
But Rabbi Stein disagreed, saying the 700,000-volume library should be accessible to students.
“It is one of the largest Jewish library collections in the world,” he said. “We are the people of the book and the need to preserve the library is crucial. But to have a disembodied library where there are no students — what’s the point? A library is meant to be a living, breathing institution.”
Robert Levine, senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, said those close to the Cincinnati campus, the first home of HUC when Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded it in 1875, “can understand how vital it is.”
“But I do not think the Reform movement could possibly get along without a rabbinic presence in New York, given what New York has meant to the Reform movement,” he said.