Reform Jewish educational institution struggles with debt

Woes could lead Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to close two of its three US campuses.

The oldest institution for training rabbis, cantors and educators of Reform Judaism is facing economic woes that could lead the college to close two of its three US campuses. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. President Rabbi David Ellenson said Monday in New York that officials were considering various ways to deal with the financial crisis, including leaving only one stateside campus open. The Jerusalem campus would not be affected if any campuses are eliminated, he said. College officials also are considering other scenarios that would allow academic programs to continue at more than one campus, Ellenson said. The college-institute is trying to cope with a projected debt of about $8 million over this year and next year. "Nothing has been decided yet," Ellenson said, adding that officials still are discussing options. Ellenson sent a letter last month and another last week to faculty, staff, the board of governors, alumni and others detailing the problems and saying that the institution "stands at a fateful crossroads" that puts it in the most financially challenging position in its history. "I wish with all my heart and soul that this were not so," Ellenson said in the April 14 letter. "Yet all the wishing in the world cannot alter the reality we face." The main financial challenges come from a reduction in revenues collected from the 900 Reform Jewish congregations in the United States and from pension liability obligations. "Those alone amount to about $6.5 (million) to $7 million either in lost revenue or added expense," Ellenson said. The board of governors will meet next month to discuss possible solutions, with a final decision expected at the board's June meeting, he said. A group of faculty, alumni and other supporters are mobilizing to try and keep the Cincinnati campus open. Rabbi Gerry Walter of Temple Sholom in Cincinnati said closing it would be a blow to American Jewry. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875. The New York campus was created in 1950 when the college merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion founded in 1922. A third campus opened in Los Angeles in 1954, with the Jerusalem campus added in 1963. The international seminary and university of graduate studies serve as the educational and intellectual center of Reform Judaism.