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Could a national network of Hebrew College by in the works?

Most likely not, but the idea has at least been floated, according to the man tapped recently as the new head of the Hebrew College in Boston.

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, told the Fundermentalist today that he recently had a preliminary discussion with an official at the Baltimore Hebrew University about possibly merging the two schools. The idea, he said, sprung from a proposal to create a national Jewish university that he recently received from an official at the Spertus College of Judaica: The Hebrew Teachers Seminary in Cleveland.

The state of Hebrew colleges in general is dismal.

Most of the colleges were founded during the early part of last century as teachers colleges to train Hebrew school teachers back in the day when most American Jewish kids attended the five-day-a-week after-school Judaic pedagogical torture sessions.

But over the past 35 years the likes of BHU in Baltimore, Spertus in Cleveland, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and Gratz College in Philadelphia have faced increasingly stiff competition for students and donors as Jewish studies programs have cropped up at major mainstream universities.

Baltimore, especially, has suffered as the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, which was its largest funder, recently stopped the $1 million annual allocation it gave BHU. The board of trustees also forced out its president of seven years because of fund raising trouble, and has had trouble keeping interim presidents as it searches for someone permanent.

One bailout idea, said Lehmann, without getting into specifics, would be to merge all of the Hebrew colleges left standing under one umbrella, because as he said, there is a lot of overlap between the schools.

Lehmann has been a rising star in the Jewish educational world since he became the founding headmaster of the progressive Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston in 1997, a position he held until last year has a daunting task ahead of him.

(Full disclosure: Before he moved to Boston, Lehmann was the Judaic Studies principal at the Fundermentalist’s alma mater, the Beth Tfiloh Community Day School in Baltimore. He is the first rabbi that I knew who listened to the Grateful Dead.)

Hebrew College has a serious budget crunch due largely to its decision to build an 80,000-square-foot campus that pushed the school’s annual budget from $1.5 million in 1993 to $17 million in 2006, according to a recent Boston Globe report.

The crunch forced the school to lay off 30 employees in January of 2007, and its enrollment of post-graduate students has dipped to around 200, according to the report that a Hebrew College spokeswoman called “accurate.”

Of all the Hebrew colleges, the one in Boston faces expecially stiff competition from the mainstream university world, as Brandeis University, which has a renowned dept of Near Eastern Judaic studies and mega-donors galore pumping tens of millions of dollars into its ever expanding Judaic studies programs, is only a few miles away from the campus.

But it is in a bit better shape than other Hebrew universities, as it has become a central part of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ decision to revision itself by focusing on Jewish education. The Boston federation and Hebrew College created a Hebrew high school that now has 800 students and is working on creating a middle school.

Its new rabbinical seminary and cantorial school are attracting students from across the country, Lehmann said.

And its Meah adult education program is going national, opening branches in Baltimore, Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

That alone could potentially position Hebrew College – in the Fundermentalist’s view – as an excellent central office for a national network of Hebrew universities. In fact, the school has partnered with the BHU on its Meah program there. (Lehmann says that the college sought a similar partnership with Gratz in Philly, but Gratz was not interested. So much for brotherly love.)

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