Arts & Culture

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

Read the first half of this post here. Atkins, a board member for the past six years, assumed the chairmanship last summer in a leadership shuffle that included Gordis’s early retirement, part of a move to bring more business acumen … Read More

By / February 4, 2009

Read the first half of this post here.

Atkins, a board member for the past six years, assumed the chairmanship last summer in a leadership shuffle that included Gordis’s early retirement, part of a move to bring more business acumen to the oversight of the College.  He acknowledged being a dissenting voice during the period of rampant expansion.

“I was not in support of running a deficit,” he said, “but I was in the minority.  The idea that we would build it and they would come always seemed to me like a long shot, like trying to win the lottery. I’ve always advocated a more commercial model—operating according to the bottom line.” 

The College, he said, is exploring a number of strategies for containing its financial hemorrhage and also trying to re-establish trust with its traditional constituency–the Boston Jewish community.  Philanthropic support has stalled, he suggested, as would-be donors wait for the articulation of an effective rehabilitation plan.  

Though relations between the College and CJP, in particular, were badly frayed during Gordis’s expansion, federation president Barry Shrage expressed measured support for the new leadership.  

"Hebrew College is an institution with extraordinary accomplishments that’s made some missteps on the financial side," said Shrage.  "We observed with great concerns, and we conveyed our concern to them.  We feel the new leadership is trying to take the challenges seriously." 

But though he spoke highly of the College’s offerings in the area of community education, in particular its initiatives for adult and teenage learners, he questioned the relevance of holding on to more advanced programming and infrastructure.

"For the rest of it," he said, "the old model doesn’t work.  Trying to be a full-scale academic institution?  What’s the point?" 

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the College’s new president, spoke of maintaining the core of current programming, and also reaching out to new audiences through the arts and the Internet.  But he also acknowledged the need for a more sober business model.

"We have to recalibrate the percentage of our operating income that comes from hard sources," he said. “That’s a fairly significant institutional change—not launching programs without having first secured grants or funding."

He has already overseen a round of layoffs, in addition to the third of the staff let go the winter before his arrival, most of them support personnel rather than academic faculty.  He has also put a portion of the College’s rare book collection up for auction.  But the budget still stands at close to $15 million, and with bond interest on the building still fluctuating wildly, it is difficult to calculate a balance.

“The building does play into the financial crisis in a significant way,” Lehmann admitted.  "There are a number of different possibilities as to what will free us from the current debt structure. Not all of them require leaving the building, and not all of them are in our control.  We have to be smart about planning for different contingencies.”

All contingency plans, however, now seem to center on some form of partnership with another regional institution. The College already sponsors limited joint programming with the Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Northeastern University, and is looking to deepen both of those relationships.  Early stage talks with Northeastern, in particular, are now proceeding “at the highest level.”

“I wouldn’t say discussions are far along,” Lehmann said.  “They’re progressing.  In some ways, we’re really just getting our heads around what kind of affiliation it would be.”

He stressed that, at least for now, he does not anticipate the kind of full merger that Baltimore Hebrew University has negotiated with Towson. 

“Our discussions,” he said, "are based on the premise that Hebrew College would retain its own board and organizational structure.  But it’s clear to me that we’re going to have to adopt a different model than the stand-alone institution that does some joint programming.”

Jonathan Sarna, for his part, saw an overestimation of national donors in the failure of David Gordis’s vision of a revitalized and independent institution.

"There were high hopes that this would become an educational center for the Boston Jewish community," he said. “In a lot of ways, at its peak, that’s what it was.  But they never could make ends meet. David did not demonstrate that if you build it they will come.”

He also saw, in the chastening of the Boston Hebrew College, an object lesson for Jewish institutions in the new economy.

“I suspect,” he said, “the idea that we’ll give a great deal for free—that rich people will pay—will be replaced by hardnosed pay-as-you-go models."