NEWTON – What happens when you’re $18 million richer, looking for a new home and about to turn 100 years old? A lot of meetings, for one thing.
Hebrew College, a nonprofit, nondenominational Jewish studies institute known for its numerous community education programs and rabbinical, cantorial and Jewish education schools, sold its expansive Newton campus in August 2018 for $18 million after two decades of mounting debt. The sale of the campus to the Winthrop Park School means that Hebrew College was able to pay off its debt. It has a lot of questions to consider as it prepares to celebrate its centennial next year and move soon after.
“I would say Hebrew College is in an extraordinary moment of change and opportunity right now,” said President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld. “We’re working a lot on building greater alignment of vision and culture within the institution, and with the upcoming move to a new campus in a few years, we really have the opportunity to reshape and refresh our identity in ways that are both exciting and economically sound and also more attuned to the needs of the Jewish community today.”
But the college is still grappling with how that reshaping will play out. Last month, Cohen Anisfeld assembled a team of board members, faculty, staff and Jewish community leaders to oversee a strategic planning process to chart a path forward. The group will “explore opportunities for increased institutional efficiency, integration, and alignment; strategic innovation and investment; and strategic partnerships,” Cohen Anisfeld wrote on the college website. “The group will ultimately make recommendations to our Board of Trustees regarding directions for a new operational and business model to ensure a foundation for our future sustainability and growth.”
Cohen Anisfeld anticipates those recommendations will be ready later this year. One of the biggest questions on everyone’s mind is where the school will move next. As part of the 2018 sale agreement, the college was allowed to stay in its current location for several years under favorable terms. The next campus will certainly be smaller than the current seven-acre, 75,000-square-foot campus, which was built in 2002 by then-President David Gordis as part of an ambitious expansion program.
This will be one of many moves for the college, which started in Roxbury and spent years in a mansion in Brookline before moving to its current campus. “[Our] physical location is not the essence of who we are, and Hebrew College has moved a number of times in our history,” said Cohen Anisfeld. “One of our adult learners said to me, ‘We Jews know how to wander, as long as we stick together.’”
A large campus is less important than it once was, because the college has made a concerted effort in recent years to conduct courses all over Greater Boston. Many of its community education programs, which currently enroll 1,700 students in 150 courses, are conducted throughout Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ coverage area. “When we find a group that has the right amount of people and the right teachers, we’re willing to set up classes almost anywhere,” said Sara Brown, the acting director of community education. “Very similar to the mandate of CJP, we want to reach people who don’t belong to traditional synagogues, we want to make learning accessible.”
Community education programs account for about half of the college’s $8.6 million annual budget (the rest of the revenue comes from its graduate programs, CJP, fundraising and private donors, including the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation), and are one of its fastest-growing and most high-profile offerings. Many of the programs receive significant funding from CJP, so tuition is relatively low. Me’ah, from the Hebrew for “100” – it requires 100 hours of study of a period of two years – is the college’s oldest and best-known program. It is now divided into Me’ah Classic (the 100-hour model), Me’ah Select (a 10-week course on a single topic), and Me’ah Online.
The college also offers youth courses for students in high school (Prozdor) and middle school (Makor), although the current youth enrollment is only 14 percent of adult education enrollment. Cohen Anisfeld said one of her priorities is figuring out how to increase youth course enrollment. The college’s adult education options range from Hebrew language Ulpan intensives to Jewish parenting courses to Eser, a program specially designed for people in their 20s and 30s. The college also offers social justice guidance and activist programs for teens and young adults, and the new Innovation Lab is granting $2,500 to $5,000 to recent alumni to start innovative community projects.
CJP continues its role as a significant funder of Hebrew College and its many initiatives, and their current relationship is strong. “Hebrew College is a long-time partner of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) and pillar of the Greater Boston Jewish community. Times have changed, as do notions of Jewish identity and Jewish community. Yet, through it all, Hebrew College continues to ensure that we are a learning community in which everyone from every generation has access to the depth and wisdom of the Jewish tradition. CJP looks forward to our ongoing partnership and to working together to shape the vision of what a diverse, Jewishly engaged, educated, and inspired community in the 21st century looks like,” said Rabbi Marc Baker, president and chief executive officer of CJP.
The majority of community education instructors are current students or alumni of Hebrew College’s three main graduate schools: a rabbinical school, a cantorial school and a school for Jewish education. The college’s renowned rabbinical school, established in 2003 under the leadership of Gordis and scholar Art Green, is currently the only rabbinical school in New England, and one of the few nondenominational rabbinical schools in the world.
“It’s an enormous strengthening and energy-giving part of Hebrew College,” said Dean Rabbi Dan Judson. “We have 63 rabbinical students and 11 cantorial students – 74 people here relatively full-time adding their energy and their thoughtfulness and their passion for Jewish life, and it’s been enormously transformative to have a large cohort of people who are living and breathing Jewish ideas.”
The school offers joint rabbinical ordination and a masters degree in Jewish education, and recently began a five-year Rav-Hazzan program where students are ordained as both a rabbi and a cantor. Most students also work during their time in school, teaching community education courses and writing their curricula, teaching Hebrew school, or working at the many Hillels of Greater Boston. “You might imagine the model of a teaching hospital: to have an amazing training ground for Jewish leaders, and at the same time elevating the quality of Jewish education that we’re able to offer the youth and adults of the Greater Boston area,” said Cohen Anisfeld.
Cautious optimism might be the best way to describe the current mood at Hebrew College as it nears its centennial year. It has come back from the brink, and is more or less breaking even financially, according to Board President Andy Offit. Its core programs are doing mostly well – enrollment in its programs is steady or increasing, and some of its adult education courses even have a waitlist. The College has made a few high-profile new hires, like Jewish Community Day School Head Susie Tanchel, who will serve as vice president of community education, and Tufts University Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jeff Summit, who will serve as director of the new Innovation Lab. The board is also in flux, experiencing significant turnover since 2017, according to Offit. The strategic planning board will be busy, but Offit sees all this change as an exciting opportunity.
“If Hebrew College was a stock, it would be like Apple at $20 a share,” he said. “The seeds we’re starting to plant now will sprout.”