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Hebrew Union College may stop ordaining rabbis in the Midwest after 150 years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cincinnati is the birthplace of American-reformed Judaism. Its Hebrew Union College has been ordaining rabbis for almost 150 years. But a financial deficit and low enrollment numbers have threatened the future of that rabbinical program. From member station WVXU, Jolene Almendarez reports.

JOLENE ALMENDAREZ, BYLINE: There are three Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religious campuses in the U.S. - New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati, the original campus. But with lowering Midwest enrollment numbers coupled with a large deficit, the school's board of governors may eliminate rabbi ordinations in Cincinnati. That possibility brought out nearly 100 people to rally at the school Thursday. Steve Pollak moved to Cincinnati 30 years ago to join what he calls a community of Jewish people whose fabric is made of many threads.

STEVE POLLACK: I'm just here to ask that Cincinnati be given the opportunity to see what it can do to help make the Cincinnati HUC campus more than it was and more than it can be or more than it is today.

ALMENDAREZ: More than 350 rabbis across the country have signed a letter disapproving of the cost-cutting measures. But college officials who declined interview requests say the change is necessary. From 2006 to today, the Cincinnati campus has seen a nearly 60% decline in the size of its rabbinical classes. School officials have spent two years developing a strategic plan that addresses the institution's concerns. Cleveland Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk was not officially involved in that planning process but says the changes are needed.

ROBERT NOSANCHUK: I believe strongly in the capacity of the president of Hebrew Union College and the remarkable team around them to meet and surmount the obstacles ahead including how upset people are right now. And it's fair. People don't - it's hard to accept that it's come to this state, but it has.

ALMENDAREZ: He says the cost-cutting measure is the only way the college can transform the way it trains prospective rabbis, like allowing them to do some online training without having to uproot their lives to move to coastal cities. These so-called low-residency rabbinical programs are increasingly popular. But for Cantor Alane Katzew, who was ordained at the New York campus, not training rabbis in Cincinnati doesn't make sense.

ALANE KATZEW: Cincinnati, as a community, is - nationally - less expensive for cost of living and the cost of real estate, services, etc.

ALMENDAREZ: The school's board of governors, comprised of more than 50 rabbis, could vote on the changes in the next few days. If rabbi ordinations are stopped, officials say the Cincinnati campus won't close, but it will be used as a research college. For NPR News, I'm Jolene Almendarez in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA'S "SB-06") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.