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Jewish seminary considers closing two U.S. campuses

Facing a $3-million deficit this year, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion might keep only one of three locations in Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati.

April 17, 2009|Larry Gordon

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a seminary and graduate school for Judaism's Reform movement, is facing such deep financial troubles that it is considering closing two of its three U.S. campuses, which include a location near downtown Los Angeles.

In a letter sent this week to members of the college community, its president, Rabbi David Ellenson, said pension funding problems, flat donations and declines in its endowment had placed the institution "in the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history -- even more so than during the Depression."

As a result, Ellenson wrote, Hebrew Union's board of governors will meet next month to discuss such scenarios as whether to keep just one of its three U.S. campuses in Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati, where the college was founded. Alternatives include merging some academic programs but keeping more than one of its U.S. campuses open, he wrote in the letter, which was released by his office. A decision is expected in June.

The college also has a campus in Jerusalem, which faces budget reductions but does not appear to be in danger of closing.

Ellenson could not be reached for comment Thursday because he was observing the end of the Passover holiday, his office staff said. Steven F. Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus, referred questions about the topic to the president's office, an assistant said.

The closure of any campus would be a painful and controversial move.

Hebrew Union College was founded in 1875 at a time when the small U.S. Jewish population was led by European-trained rabbis. Later merged with the New York-based Jewish Institute of Religion, the college has become a major force in liberal American Judaism. It trains Reform rabbis, cantors and lay leaders and offers courses to students of all religions in such subjects as biblical archaeology and sacred music.

For the current semester, 380 full- and part-time students are enrolled at the college, including 92 in Los Angeles, officials said. Over the years, it has ordained 2,899 rabbis, including 552 women; the ordination of women has been allowed since 1972 by Reform Judaism, the largest U.S. Jewish denomination. It is considered the nation's oldest institution of Jewish higher education.

The Los Angeles campus, which opened in 1954, is adjacent to USC and, in a cooperative arrangement, offers credit classes for USC students in Judaic studies. Its library holds more than 125,000 volumes of Judaica as well as microfilm and recordings.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, who was ordained by the college and is former dean of religious life at USC, said she thought the closure of any campus would trigger "very strong protest and push-back."

Laemmle said the connections between Hebrew Union and USC were unusually strong and provided an enriched experience for professors and students at both schools.

In the letter to the college community this week and another in March, Ellenson said the school faced a deficit of about $3 million this year and perhaps more in the coming year. Dues from Reform congregations across the country -- a main income source -- were down, he wrote, and some investments had lost so much value that they were not providing any income.

Ellenson said his and other top administrators' salaries had already been cut by 10%, with smaller reductions for many other employees. Tuition increases also were in the works, he said.


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