Arts & Culture

Jewish Organizations in the New Economy: The Boston Hebrew College (Part One)

After 88 years of autonomy, money problems are forcing the Boston Hebrew College to consider a merger, a development that speaks volumes about changing patterns in American Jewish life. The Federation-sponsored College was founded in 1921 to train Hebrew teachers for a supplementary school … Read More

By / February 2, 2009

After 88 years of autonomy, money problems are forcing the Boston Hebrew College to consider a merger, a development that speaks volumes about changing patterns in American Jewish life.

The Federation-sponsored College was founded in 1921 to train Hebrew teachers for a supplementary school system run by the local Bureau of Jewish Education.  Along with sister schools in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore, it has also served as an important address for advanced Jewish study–especially when quotas limited Jewish attendance of American universities–counting historian Jonathan Sarna among its graduates, and David Starr, Nehemia Polen, and Arthur Green among its faculty.

But over the last half century, the College has struggled to keep pace with rapid changes.  Suburbanization precipitated a move from the inner-city Roxbury neighborhood to Brookline in 1951, and then to Newton earlier this decade.  When the BJE’s school network collapsed in the late-60s, the result of a fragmenting community, the declining demand for professionally trained teachers cut into enrollment.  And the mushrooming of Judaic studies departments on American campuses led to a brain drain, with scholars opting for the resources and prestige of secular universities over affiliation with what has been dismissively termed a "Jewish junior college."

All five regional schools have suffered a comparable decline, and have responded either by seeking new paths to relevance or by drastically reducing their overhead.  Chicago’s Spertus Institute, recognizing an increased interest in Jewish fine arts, last year launched a cultural museum in its elegant new building on Michigan Avenue.  The Baltimore Hebrew University, by contrast, after a protracted conflict with its federation sponsors over mission and funding, recently announced a merger with Towson University.

Hebrew College began to chart a new course in 1993 when David Gordis, formerly executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, as well as one-time vice president at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the University of Judaism, took over the presidency. Responding to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which had for the first time reported an intermarriage rate topping 50 percent, Gordis partnered with Combined Jewish Philanthropies–the Boston federation–in a plan to combat attrition with literacy.  He felt that strengthening Jewish identity through sophisticated communal learning initiatives would also provide the College with a renewed sense of mission.

"I suggested," said Gordis, "that what Hebrew College was all about was serving as a bridge between scholarship and community."

But Gordis also harbored ambitions for transforming Hebrew College into a national institution.  This entailed the rapid development of a flurry of far-reaching programs, including a Ph.D. track in Jewish education, and a transdenominational rabbinical school.  He also moved the College into a brand new, $34 million dollar campus, designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.

Gordis believed this expansion could be funded, initially, out of the College’s available capital,  with increased philanthropy eventually picking up the slack.  An annual budget of $1.5 million at the start of his tenure, over half of it coming from a CJP allocation, had ballooned by 2006 to $16.2 million.  But with no significant increase either in federation dollars or direct giving, financial holdings plummeted.  Between 2003 and 2006, the most intense period of growth, net assets declined approximately from $25 million to $14.5 million.

"I expected," said Gordis, "both a greater involvement by the locally significant funders and by some of the national people."

The consequences of this failed development plan have worsened considerably since the global economic downturn began last fall.  The bond-financing of its building campaign has exposed the College to skyrocketing interest rates, meaning unanticipated monthly expenditures in the hundreds of thousands.  If the College cannot meet its obligations to bondholders, it risks foreclosure.

Unsubstantiated claims have also circulated in the Boston community that money raised to pay for the building was channeled instead into program development, exacerbating the current debt load, a charge of misappropriation disputed by current board chair Mark Atkins.

"There are a lot of rumors," he said. "That was one of them.  But to my knowledge, I have not seen anything relative to misappropriation.  People can question the tactics and their execution, but these things were done in the interest of perpetuating the college by offering superior products."

To be continued…