by Samuel D. Gruber
A few days ago in my blogpost about American Jewish History Month I mentioned the troubles at Hebrew Union College, and the possibility that HUC will close at least one of its four campuses – quite possibly the original campus in Cincinnati. On May 5th, 2009, the HUC Board issued a statement meant to diffuse some of the angst evidence on the blogosphere and in messages sent to HUC:
The Board has charged the administration to devise a plan that will attain financial sustainability and enhance our academic excellence while preserving our presence in Cincinnati,Los Angeles, and New York. The model being developed includes innovative strategies for learning and teaching, increased use of technology, a firm commitment to the Klau Library and American Jewish Archives, and an evolving vision of education that will meet the needs of the 21st century. Significant financial restructuring will establish a sustainable, balanced budget, ensuring the future of the College-Institute.
(Click here for the transcript of HUC’s press release offering a commitment to the three campuses).
As you can see, the Board maintains a commitment to all of its present locations, but demurs about exactly what the presence is. While the likelihood of the preservation of the Klau Library and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati remains high, the future of the rest of the campus as a Jewish seminary is still in doubt. A website is tracking developments and those who are interested and concerned should a make a point of logging in.
The history of the HUC in Cincinnati is undeniable. Isaac Wise made Cincinnati the center of the distinctly American Reform movement when he moved there from Albany in 1854. The seminary was founded in 1875, and the beginnings of the campus were planned and built from 1907 on (see below). For a long time HUC in Cincinnati was as relevant to American Jews as 777 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn is to the Lubavitch Movement today. Demographic change, and the changing profile of American Judaism has changed that, and the Jewish leadership (and many rabbinic students) much prefer the 21st century Jewish power centers of New York and Los Angeles. Still, a large percentage of American Jews – and especially Reform Jews – still live in urban centers far from the coasts. And it can be argued that not only history, but contemporary American Reform Judaism deserves a center that is not in competition with the hundreds of New York and LA Jewish organizations agencies, institutions and events, and one where students will be trained to be rabbis in “heartland” communities. But it all comes down to money – though I assume the costs of everything – from facilities to salaries to housing and meals for students are more expensive than NY and LA in Cincinnati.
I have a scholarly interest in the early history of the HUC campus, too. Arnold W. Brunner (1857-1925), the American-born Jewish architect that I have been researching recently, was called in as an adviser to HUC when it was first commissioning its Cincinnati campus buildings. The fact that Brunner was the designer of the first building for the Jewish Theological Seminary didn’t matter. After all, Brunner’s patron Jacob Schiff was a contributor to both institutions.
Here are few notes from a still unpublished article about Brunner’s Jewish projects:
Probably in large part because of the success of JTS, but also because of his pre-eminent role as a Jewish architect with planning experience, Brunner was engaged by JTS’s “rival” institution, the Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati. Despite their differences in approaches to Judaism JTS and HUC shared a number of prominent donors. Brunner was also well known in Ohio, where since 1901 he had been working on the FederalBuilding and Group Plan in Cleveland. The choice by Hebrew Union College then, to hire Brunner as consultant to help jump-start their new effort to create a campus is not surprising.
In March 1903, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which had oversight of the seminary, appointed a committee to consider moving the College to anew location within Cincinnati. Eventually land was purchased near the University, across form Burnet Woods. The parcel consisted of 18 acres and faced Clifton Avenue. Raising funds to pay for site – which cost far more than HUC’s old site returned, proved difficult. On top of this, funds were needed to erect new buildings.
While this process was on-going, Brunner was hired as a consulting architect to design a program and to help select architects for the specific tasks (unfortunately, no correspondence or other records of this arrange survive at HUC, and no copy of the original prospectus or competition guidelines have been yet found). Jacob Schiff’s $25,000 contribution to the building program may have had something to do with Brunner begin called in. Probably the program Brunner designed was not too different from that of the Jewish Theological Seminary. On January 14, 1907, the Executive Board of HUC heard that “The Building Committee, aided by their Consulting Architect, Mr. Arnold W. Brunner of New York, after a competitive submission of plans, adopted those prepared by Mr. A. Lincoln Fechheimer, who has associated with himself Mr. Harry Hake. These plans are now on exhibition in the hall wherein the Twentieth Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations will meet.” (Proceedings of the Executive Board, Hebrew Union College (Jan. 14, 1907)). Both Fechheimer and Hake subsequently designed buildings for the University of Cincinnati.
For more on the history of Hebrew Union College see Samuel E. Karff, ed. Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion at One Hundred Years (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1976).