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Jewish college considers cutbacks, possible closures

April 16, 2009 | 12:50 pm

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, possibly including one near downtown Los Angeles.

 In a letter sent this week to members of the college community, its president, Rabbi David Ellenson, said endowment declines, pension funding problems and flat donations have 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, the college’s board of governors will meet next month to discuss such “radical” scenarios as keeping just one of its three U.S. campuses, which are in Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati, where it was founded. Other alternatives include merging some academic programs but keeping more than one campus open in the U.S., he wrote. A final decision is expected in June.

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also has a campus in Jerusalem, which apparently is not in danger of closing but faces budget reductions.

Ellenson could not be reached for comment today because he was observing the end of the Passover holiday, according to his office. Steven F. Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus, referred queries to Ellenson.

Any campus closure would be a painful and controversial move by a school described as the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education. Hebrew Union College, which later merged with the New York-based Jewish Institute of Religion, was founded in 1875 at a time when the small Jewish populations in the United States were led by European-trained rabbis. It has become a major force in American Judaism, training Reform rabbis, cantors and lay leaders and offering courses to students of all religions in such areas as biblical archaeology and sacred music.

The Los Angeles campus opened in 1954 and its library holds more than 125,000 volumes of Judaica as well as large holdings of microfilms and recordings. Through a cooperative arrangement, it offers classes in Judaic studies to USC students.

-- Larry Gordon

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