A "Reform" School for Jewish Boys
Today the Union for Reform Judaism is engaged in a variety of activities that include theReligious Action Center, camping, and assistance to its member congregations. But when it was formed back in 1873, it had only a single major purpose: to establish the first successful rabbinical school in the United States.
The need was great. More and more congregations were instituting religious reforms. Their members, nearly all from Germany, had sought their spiritual leadership from the ranks European Reform rabbis. However, these men, no matter how brilliant, were incapable of giving a proper sermon in the English language or did so with a heavy German accent. The lay leadership now wanted American-trained rabbis, especially for their children, for whom German was no longer their mother tongue. Small congregations, who couldn't afford importation, often had to settle for charlatans, individuals with a minimal Jewish knowledge, who cribbed their sermons from the work of others. For the most part these men did not have the audacity to call themselves "rabbi," but made do with the title of "reverend." Not surprisingly, congregations hired them on short contracts and generally dismissed them after two or three years.
To deal with this problem, Isaac Leeser, the cantor of the Sephardi synagogue Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, had tried to create a conservative but modern seminary in 1867. Named Maimonides College, it was established with great hopefulness only to shut its doors within six years. Lacking a broad union of congregations to support it, financial problems did it in.
It was the brilliance of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise to realize that only with a congregational union as a permanent source of income could an American rabbinical seminary be put on a secure financial basis. He also knew that its foundation had to be laid by laymen, not rabbis. That is why in 1873 he allowed the initiative for what became the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the URJ) to come from the president of his Cincinnati congregation, Moritz Loth. Two years later, in 1875, seventy-two congregations had joined the Union--an impressive number in those days. Financial support, however, was another matter. By sober reckoning, the $5000 collected was simply not enough. But that didn't stop Wise. Convinced that once the school was in operation doubts would evaporate, the headstrong rabbi went forward nonetheless. He apparently knew that the impressive opening exercises in Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple would have their effect. After only a few months $64,000 had been pledged and the Hebrew Union College was in business.
In those early years the College was a most modest affair. The rabbinate was not regarded as a prestigious profession. Just as Catholic boys who could not make a living on their own were dispatched to a monastery, so Jewish parents sent to Hebrew Union College sons who, in the words of one father in a letter to Rabbi Wise, "weren't good for much else." Some of the early students came from orphanages, others from very poor families. The College authorities were forced to supply not only instruction but also decent clothing for their otherwise shabbily dressed pupils. The boys came to the College at an early age and could be disruptive to the point that one teacher had to be dismissed because he couldn't control his charges. The library consisted of a few dozen volumes, mostly donated and locked up at night to keep away the rats.
Nonetheless, the College persevered. Its Board of Governors, whose majority was located in Cincinnati, took an active role in the welfare of the College, frequently visiting classes and making sure that students regularly attended daily chapel services. Wise's title was not president of the school but merely president of its faculty, parallel to Bernhard Bettmann, who for many years served as president of the Board of Governors and to whom Wise had to make monthly reports.
Eight years after its founding, in 1883, the first class of four students received the "kiss of ordination," which Wise proudly planted on their foreheads. Each of the men would have a successful rabbinical career, two in Philadelphia, one in Cincinnati, and one in Buffalo. And although Hebrew Union College was initially intended to serve all Jews, each would see himself as a proponent of Reform Judaism as it was understood at that time: universalistic in aspiration and focused upon the ethical life rather than ritual.
Succeeding years would see the Hebrew Union College move from a small building near the Ohio River to a campus in the hills overlooking downtown Cincinnati. After the death of Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1949, it would merge with the Jewish Institute of Religion that "the other Wise" had created in New York in 1922, and later it would add campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
This year Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion celebrates 140 years since its founding. From small beginnings a multifaceted institution has gradually developed, embracing not only the training of rabbis but also other Jewish professionals. Its libraries are world class. The faculty's devotion to Jewish scholarship and instruction is closely linked to their value for the spiritual life of the Reform movement. Although far more independent of its supporting congregational union than in its early days, HUC-JIR continues to see service to URJ synagogues as its principal objective.
Michael A. Meyer , Ph.D. is the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History Emeritus of Hebrew Union College -Jewish Institute of Religion. The author and editor of many publications, Professor Meyer has served as president of the Association for Jewish Studies, international president of the Leo Baeck Institute and is a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish research.