Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Plea for the Future of HUC in Cincinnati

There is a lot of maneuvering afoot in the Reform movement. First the URJ announced its restructuring, which, to be perfectly fair, was in the works for a long time before the current financial crunch. Now the Hebrew Union College is making some major decisions in the wake of serious financial problems.

I know that there are a number of proposals on the table as the Board of Governors of HUC-JIR prepares to meet this weekend. And I also know that some versions of those proposals involve in some way closing the Cincinnati campus.

This is the letter I sent to the President and Board of Governors:

Dear Dr. Ellenson,
I cannot even begin to be as eloquent as so many of my colleagues who have composed letters and emails so far this month. And I cannot even begin to express to you my gratitude and appreciation for all that you do to make HUC-JIR the wonderful institution that it is. Please know that I come to this email from a place of deep respect for the decision that you and the Board are about to make.
I must add my voice, however, to those who have already spoken. I am a Midwesterner, born and raised. I have felt for a long time that there is a sense (on both the East and West Coasts) of the middle of the country as a place devoid of Jewish life. This is most certainly not so! There is a vibrant and marvelous Jewish community in all corners of the middle parts of this country! And these communities are, unfortunately, often maligned, slighted, or otherwise dismissed by the larger communities of New York and Los Angeles. This is unfortunate. There are strong Jewish communities in St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Indianapolis, and yes, Cincinnati. And there are strong Jewish communities in small towns all around Missouri, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois – not to mention all the Southern states as well. A list is too long to make! Many (if not most in the case of the smaller towns) of these communities are served by Reform rabbis or rabbinical students, most of them from the Cincinnati campus.
I firmly believe that we are remiss as a movement if we isolate ourselves in the “ivory towers” of the large coastal cities and ignore the importance of the “heartland of America” by closing the Cincinnati campus to the rabbinical program. On the contrary, in fact, I believe that Cincinnati is the very best place for Jews to be influenced and to influence. Many of our rabbinical students come from the Coasts, go there for school, and never really gain a true understanding of American Judaism across the country. If the rabbis that HUC-JIR produces come only from the coasts, will we really have a decent and comprehensive understanding of amcha in America? I don’t think so. I think that shutting down the heart of Reform Judaism will only dishearten the “Jews in the pews” in the middle of our country, and I think it will do a major disservice to our rabbinical students to deprive them of the opportunity to experience the vibrancy of Cincinnati’s Jewish community.
Sure, New York is a marvelous place to be a Jew. Wonderful things are happening there that young Jews in particular are taking advantage of. Regular and creative interaction with all that New York City has to offer is key to making sure we are not cut off from the innovative spirit that appears to exist in that great city. But that innovative spirit must have a soul, and I believe that the true soul of American Judaism is all around the country, nestled in its small communities and “flyover” cities as well as the East and West Coasts.
Please don’t condemn Cincinnati to become a relic of our past. Please remember the communities that we serve and honestly consider the importance of all the ways that the Cincinnati campus, in particular, and HUC-JIR in general, serves them.
I wish you and the Board of Governors strength and wisdom as you make your decisions.
Rabbi Phyllis A. Sommer

For more information go here: and read through the powerful letters and links that have been shared there. Follow @savehuc on Twitter or you could always just follow me, @imabima to learn more.

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