Gratitude for HUC-JIR Cincinnati

Early next week, the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (my rabbinical seminary) will vote on a proposal to end the rabbinical program in Cincinnati. The administration of HUC-JIR, led by the college-institute’s president, claims that they are not closing the campus, merely repurposing it, while housing domestic rabbinical programs only in New York and LA. I don’t want to go into all the details of the proposals here, but you can find them posted on HUC’s website. If you’re unfamiliar, you might want to give them a glance so my comments below make more sense.

There are many reasons why I hope the board votes down this proposal, and many of them are enumerated in this letter to the board, which I’ve signed along with nearly 500(!) other alumni of HUC-JIR. Read that for a good sense of the proposal’s financial and strategic pitfalls; I won’t repeat those points here. What follows are my personal responses, and they should not be taken to represent anyone else who opposes the proposal or who signed the letter linked above.

Were the administration’s recommendation a cogent one, based on thorough statistical analyses (instead of anecdotal evidence), I could imagine accepting, with great sadness, the conclusion that the Cincinnati rabbinical program should be closed. But that is not the proposal at hand. So I am angry.

I love the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR, but more than that, I love the presence of its students in the local and regional Jewish communities where I was raised. True, if we were to think about establishing a new foothold for higher Jewish learning in the country, Cincinnati might no longer be the top choice. But that foothold is there now, and has been for 147 years of the 200 that there has been a Jewish community in Cincinnati. We should leverage that opportunity—the only liberal Jewish seminary beyond the coasts—instead of abandoning it.

Because, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, closing the rabbinical program is abandoning Cincinnati. To me, it seems completely backward to think that we should preserve the Cincinnati campus, even its treasured institutions of the American Jewish Archives and Klau Library, without its flagship program. Who are these for, if not students who use them? Take away the students who use them daily, and the buildings will be mere shells, even if a low-residency program visits them from time to time.

The greater Cincinnati Jewish community and HUC-JIR have grown in symbiosis with one another. Removing the rabbinical students is an enormous loss, one which the administration just does not seem to comprehend. For example, I asked the administrators in an alumni town hall how they will make up for the loss of rabbinical students being embedded in regional Jewish life, as well as the loss of the learning laboratory to the students. The administrators responded that students from New York or LA could fly in to work in the religious schools or teach online. As if that is some kind of replacement for year-round, weekly engagement. And it just won’t happen. Who would fly from NYC every other week to teach Hebrew school in Cincinnati, when they could take the train to Westchester to teach and be home by evening? Nonsensical responses like this are why I have such a difficult time trusting the administration when they say they have everything all planned out.

Another reason for my anger is the oppositional way the administration seems to have gone about constructing their proposals. If you look at footnote #1 of the document Location Recommendation for HUC-JIR’s Restructured and Reimagined Rabbinical School, you’ll notice that it is endorsed by administrators and faculty from all of HUC-JIR’s campuses except Cincinnati. By the administration’s own admission, they are doing this without the support of the stakeholders who would be most affected by the proposal’s enactment. My Cincinnati Talmud professor Dr. Mark Washofsky, who just retired, gave a stirring public defense of the Cincinnati program last month, with the president and provost seated behind him. It opened the door for him and many other tenured Cincinnati faculty members to sign the concerned alumni letter above or otherwise voice their opposition.

I loved learning with these professors. They are smart people who have thoughtful ideas about how to improve HUC-JIR. But the administration has knowingly left them behind, and I’m upset about it.

What makes me particularly sad is that many of the ideas the administration proposes are good ones. Creating a low-residency rabbinical program would be a fantastic option for would-be second-career rabbis or those with families who can’t easily relocate for one year in Jerusalem and four more in a different city. Building a research center on the foundation of the AJA and the Klau would be a strong statement about the contributions Reform Judaism has for academia and for Jewish life. Hosting annual seminars and retreats in Cincinnati for faculty and students would a a cost-effective way to hold these gatherings. But wouldn’t they all be strengthened by the presence of a robust, full-time rabbinical program on the premises? Why does the administration claim they will only be “allowed” to pursue these plans if the rabbinical program closes first?

I know that HUC-JIR is facing some serious challenges and is in need of a new vision to carry its mission further into the 21st century—a new vision that meets the needs of a Jewish community that looks very different than it did 50 or 100 years ago. We need more rabbis, and we need more rabbis who are prepared for diverse rabbinates. Closing the Cincinnati rabbinical program, according to the proposal on the table in its current formulation, does not get us there.

This is a bit of a rant, I know. But this is my personal blog, not a letter to the board. (Again, I do not claim to speak for anyone else.)

I did write a letter to the board, back in January when fewer people knew this was in the works. At that time, I didn’t even know the details of the proposal since it hadn’t yet been made public; I simply wrote to share why my rabbinical education in Cincinnati was valuable to me. I’ll end this post with that letter, because it captures what the Cincinnati program has to offer. I hope it can continue to offer it for years to come.

I am writing to express my deep gratitude for studying on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. Even when I found myself in a long-distance relationship partway through my studies, I specifically chose not to apply to transfer to another campus because the learning experience in Cincinnati meant so much to me. Especially as someone who grew up in Cincinnati, I knew I would thrive most in the midwestern environment—not to mention that it allowed me to afford graduate school without an exorbitant cost of living.

The Cincinnati campus gave me access to resources and opportunities simply nonexistent on the other campuses, even with growing technological connections. Doing archival research at the AJA was immensely valuable, and it was particularly meaningful to get my hands on real documents related to my own grandfather’s work in the Cincinnati Jewish community. My thesis reading and writing with Dr. David Aaron were also among the most important parts of my time on the campus. I can say with complete sincerity that the learning he facilitated for me informs every aspect of my Jewish practice and thinking, both personally and professionally.

My experience in the Cincinnati campus’s in-house Clinical Pastoral Education program was also transformative, primarily because it was with a cohort of my classmates. I know from friends on other campuses and at other seminaries, who did other CPE programs, that this is a unique opportunity. Instead of being the only Jew in the group, I could grow my practice in a wholly Jewish context while guided by a rabbi. And instead of navigating vulnerable relationships with strangers, I could rely on my classmates to give me invaluable feedback. I was all the more invested in the emotional and spiritual work of CPE, because I knew my peers and I would continue those relationships for the rest of our school years and in our futures as ordained rabbis.

I also want to name the Jewish Foundation Fellowship as an experience that made a lasting impact on my rabbinate. Not only did it give me the nurturing environment to explore a number of rabbinic settings and build my skills, but it supported me financially. It allowed me to gather a number of community mentors, some of whom I continue to turn to for guidance years later. And it gave me the hands-on experience to become a reflective practitioner in Jewish education, which directly enables me to fulfill my current position as a Director of Congregational Learning.

Finally, as a Cincinnatian, I know how important HUC-JIR’s presence is to the local and regional Jewish community. As a child I took for granted that my Sunday school teachers and camp unit heads were rabbinical students, and as a teenager I was privileged to have easy access to the campus for NFTY events. When I later returned for rabbinical school, I got to serve as an intern and student rabbi in congregations around the city and region where I grew up, and I could learn and work with the rabbis and educators I admired as a child. And when I was ordained by HUC-JIR in front of the ark at Plum Street Temple, I stood on the same bimah where I became Bar Mitzvah. In a time when so much of Jewish institutional life is becoming bicoastal, I have always felt proud to say that I am from Cincinnati, and that is largely because I share a hometown with HUC-JIR.

Rabbi Sam Pollak
Cincinnati Ordination Class of 2017

One comment

  1. Well, said, Sam. The Reform movement has such roots in the small towns and larger cities of the heartland. The board’s proposal dismisses those communities and the strain of liberal Judaism that grows there. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, investing in this communities would increase the vibrancy and viability of the American Jewish project. Timidly retreating to the costs will be part of the decline.

    Liked by 1 person

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