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When a rabbinical school closes

A requiem for a rabbinical program. Actually, for far more than that.

The campus of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in January 2019. Photo by Warren LeMay/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Steely Dan put it this way back in 1973: “I’m never going back to my old school.”

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is “my old school.” It is the oldest rabbinical seminary in the Western Hemisphere, founded in Cincinnati in 1875. Its other campuses are located in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Let me go one step further. HUC-JIR is actually the oldest rabbinical seminary, in continuous use, in the world.

That history is now in jeopardy. HUC-JIR’s board of directors is slated to vote on a proposal that would end the Cincinnati rabbinical program in its current form. Remaining intact: the greatest treasures of the Cincinnati campus — the American Jewish Archives and the Klau Library.

I wince about this coming decision. I feel the pangs of history and the pride that my seminary is the only non-Orthodox/non-yeshiva rabbinical school between the Appalachians and the Pacific. At its roots, American Reform Judaism was the Judaism of the American heartland, and HUC-JIR’s presence in that heartland bore testimony to that noble history.

As Shari Rabin, a historian of American Jewry at Oberlin College (full disclosure: my cousin), said:

HUC was founded when it was, how it was, and where it was because of particular historical dynamics, and those have undeniably changed. I certainly don’t envy those in charge of making this decision. That being said, I would personally be sad to see the role of Cincinnati diminished. It has a rich history and even if its Jewish population is relatively small, it is a powerful reminder of the importance of places outside of coastal cities, where large numbers of American Jews live and flourish.

But — heartland or not, history or not — in recent years, rabbinical students have increasingly voted with their feet. Upon their return from the mandatory first year in Israel, they have preferred to study at the Los Angeles or New York campuses. Over the past 15 years, enrollment in Cincinnati has fallen by 60%.

But, here is the wake-up call.

It is not only that fewer people want to study in Cincinnati. It is that fewer people want to study for the Reform rabbinate — at all.

There has been a 37% decline in the number of Reform rabbinical students.

If you think this is just about Reform Judaism, guess again.

Consider the situation of the American Jewish University in one of the prime locations in the United States — in Los Angeles, in Bel Air. American Jewish University contains the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies which, along with New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, trains Conservative rabbis.

Recently, it was announced the AJU campus is for sale.

And Ziegler? It currently has 34 students enrolled. In an effort to attract more students, Ziegler is slashing its tuition cost from approximately $31,000 to $7,000.

As R.E.M. put it: “That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.”

When it comes to religion — or, at least, the way America has traditionally understood religion — that song is now my ear worm.

I have been a keen observer of Reform Judaism, and my views have been informed by the 2020 Pew study, which I have interpreted with the help of a veteran American Jewish sociologist.

This is what I see: a portrait of Jews in the 18-49 age category — the generation that would be producing new rabbis — and their would-be congregants:

  • Fewer say being Jewish is important to them.
  • Fewer feel a connection to the broader Jewish people.
  • Fewer report having close Jewish friends.
  • Fewer observe Jewish traditions, however defined.
  • Fewer are members of synagogues.
  • Fewer attend services.
  • Increasingly, they are Jews of “no religion.”

This cultural tsunami has affected not only Reform Judaism; it has affected all non-Orthodox Jews.

It has not only affected Judaism; it has affected all American religion.

Religiously speaking, America is becoming Europe. Secularism has won.

How could this not have affected the number of people wanting to study for the rabbinate?

But, there is something else as well — and it is something that is internal to the Reform movement.

Why am I a Reform rabbi in the first place?

The first sparks of my spiritual yearnings happened in NFTY, the Reform youth movement.

NFTY provided me with social, intellectual and spiritual outlets. I found a Jewish “address” for my social activism. I marched for civil rights; for farm workers; for Soviet Jewry; against the war in Vietnam — all, as a Reform Jewish youth, with the imprimatur of my movement.

And today?

My colleagues will tell you one of their biggest challenges is that their synagogue youth programs have shrunk — in some cases, precipitously.

Our young people are facing unprecedented competition for their time and energy — all of which predated COVID: tutoring, sports and the almost idolatrous need to pad their “resumes” for college.

As Michelle Shapiro Abraham, executive director of strategic innovation and program for URJ Youth, has said, teens today are looking for different opportunities and experiences than previous generations.

This has resulted in a smaller national Reform youth movement. The economic realities have been blunt. The Reform movement had to cut funding for NFTY regional youth directors. In 2018, the Reform movement sold its teen leadership camp, Kutz Camp — because of shrinking enrollment.

If we diminish NFTY as a national movement, then we diminish one of the critical supply chains into Jewish professional life. A smaller national movement means a smaller number of young people will be exposed to rabbinical role models, with the exception of their own local rabbis. They are deprived of a national context, the sense of a movement, the sense of being part of something larger than themselves.

Can we overcome these obstacles?

Come back with me — to the first century of the Common Era. The Romans have destroyed Jerusalem and the second temple. In utter despair, the Jews smuggled their leader, Yochanan ben Zakkai, out of Jerusalem in a coffin.

The sages repaired to the coastal city of Yavneh, and there they re-created Judaism. The temple was gone, and so were the sacrifices. Judaism would relocate itself in the home and the synagogue. The Pesach sacrifice became the home-based seder. Judaism’s religious language would become prayer, Torah study and mitzvot.

Now, 2,000 years later, American Judaism is having its “Yavneh moment.” We are experiencing a transformation — as deep and as pervasive as that moment when the ancient temple gave way to the synagogue. Those transformations have been coming for decades; now, they are fully upon us.

But, there is some good news.

In some categories the younger generation scored higher than their elders.

Slightly more of them:

  • Attended a Passover Seder
  • Fasted on Yom Kippur
  • Shared Jewish culture with friends
  • Listen to Jewish music
  • Get their Judaism online

Let us remember: Yochanan ben Zakkai got smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He was only playing dead. He jumped out of the coffin.

Can American Judaism pull a Yochanan ben Zakkai? Can it leap up again?

Yes. A new generation of leaders will take all of those positive elements and run with them.

But let us not imagine we have unlimited time or resources.

Our theological clock is ticking.

As the Psalmist wrote: “It is time to work for God.”