HUC Closes New York Kollel


The New York Kollel, a 12-year-old adult education program that has met at the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary in Manhattan and offered advanced yeshiva-style studies from a non-denominational, non-Orthodox perspective, is giving its last classes this summer.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has housed and helped support the Kollel since 1995, announced this spring that it would close the program, following a two and a half year “strategic planning process” that found the Kollel to be a financial drain.

“We seriously had to look at a number of wonderful programs that we would have been delighted to continue, but we frankly could not afford. The New York Kollel Program is one of them,” Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC president, wrote in a letter to Kollel participants who signed a petition and sent letters in recent months as part of a student-led campaign to save the Kollel. “A key issue for us is achieving excellence in our core programs while also being financially sustainable – not easy on a tight budget,” Rabbi Ellenson wrote.

But at least some associated with the program said shutting its doors was not only a shame, but a mistake for the Reform movement.

“Closing a Torah institution like the Kollel seems to be a misunderstanding of the priorities we should focus on,” said Rabbi Joshua Saltzman, the founding director of the Kollel who is now a scholar-in-residence at CLAL. “While HUC is a wonderful rabbinic institution, there is a real lack of attention to providing serious adult education.”

“We think that closing the program will harm not only the many students who take classes at Kollel each year, but will also impact our local synagogues and other sites of study,” Lauren Szapiro, the Kollel student who organized the petition campaign, wrote in a letter to the administration. “We know that we receive at Kollel a level of education and teaching that could not be provided at smaller or less esteemed venues, and that we bring that knowledge back to our communities.”

Rabbi Aaron Panken, HUC dean and vice president for strategic initiatives, said the Kollel, which was established with grant money from UJA-Federation’s Jewish Continuity Commission, has cost the school “millions of dollars, literally,” over the last dozen years. He declined to offer specific budget details.

No other HUC programs have been discontinued during the school’s self-study, Rabbi Panken said, adding that HUC will continue to offer other adult education programs.

The Kollel, which attracted both students and teachers from all denominations of Judaism, established a reputation for providing a high-level alternative to both the adult education courses run by various Reform congregations, and the Orthodox-sponsored programs that are unlikely to bring in students from non-Orthodox backgrounds. Prominent instructors included singer Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (Reform), Rabbi David Kraemer (Conservative), Rabbi Arthur Waskow (Jewish Renewal), and Rabbi Michael Chernick (Orthodox). Courses, which emphasized text study, ranged from Psalms and the Torah portion of the week, to more esoteric topics as “Love, Sex and Judaism” and “The Jewish Thought of Martin Buber.”

About 15 students are enrolled in two advanced Hebrew language courses, the Kollel’s final classes, which end early next month.

This was the last week on the job for Rabbi Ruth Gais, Kollel director for seven years. “I can’t decide if they’re seven lean years or seven fat years,” Rabbi Gais said last week in her office, referring to the words Pharaoh used when relating his dreams to Joseph in the biblical story.

“I’m sad that this is happening,” Rabbi Gais said. “It’s my baby.”

“Thousands” of students have taken Kollel courses since 1995 or attended the popular all-night study sessions on Shavuot, she said.

A former university professor with a Ph.D. in classical archaeology, the rabbi established advanced Hebrew instruction at the Kollel, introduced off-site classes, and recruited several new instructors.

Tom Gardner, a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC who has enrolled in Kollel courses since 1999, said the program gave several students – himself included – the confidence to apply to rabbinical schools, and served as the impetus for other adult education programs, particularly Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning.

“The Kollel is part of the core mission of HUC,” Gardner said.

“New York Kollel is committed to transforming adult Jewish study,” according to a statement about the program’s “mission” on the HUC Web site. The statement says the Kollel was created “ to serve the large number of Jews, from all walks of life, seeking to express and explore their religious and spiritual identities.

The curriculum, said Rabbi Saltzman, the founding director, was designed to reflect a “liberal,” but not narrowly Reform approach to Jewish studies. Over the years, said Rabbi Saltzman, who continued to teach Kollel courses, the program adapted a more-Reform flavor, at the urging of HUC.

Rabbi Saltzman said a decrease over the years in the number of students enrolled in Kollel classes each semester, from about 300 to under 200, paralleled a decrease in HUC’s financial support for the program. “It was much more difficult to market [Kollel activities]. It was much more difficult to get teachers.

Lauren Szapiro, the petition organizer who works for the city’s mental health department, took Kollel classes the past five years, beginning with beginner’s Hebrew.

“This is my passion,” she said. “Rabbi Gais created a very warm, accepting environment for people.” Some Kollel students, Szapiro said, continue to meet, studying such topics at Psalms, in their apartments.

Inspired by Kollel, Szapiro said she occasionally goes to lunch-and-learn study programs, and is investigating where she will take adult education courses in the fall.

She is considering Me’ah, a program under the auspices of the Boston-based Hebrew College that is offered at several sites in the New York area.

“I want to learn. I want to study,” Szapiro said. “Kollel gave me a passion for learning.”