Boston’s Hebrew College sells its campus to shore up its future

Israeli architect Moshe Safdie designed the suburban Boston home of Hebrew College, where it has been headquartered since 2002. (Courtesy of Hebrew College)

BOSTON (JTA) — Sixteen years after moving into a gleaming, light-filled new structure full of promise and pride of place, Hebrew College is selling the distinctive building.

School leaders say the move will allow the nearly century-old educational institution in suburban Boston to shed its burdensome debt.

On Thursday, the Hebrew College Board of Trustees finalized an agreement to sell the Newton Centre campus, its home since 2002. The agreement allows the college, which is some seven miles west of this city, to remain in the building as a tenant for several years while it searches for another site, according to Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, its new president.

In a statement, Hebrew College described the decision as a transformative milestone as the school nears its centennial.

“This allows us to resolve all of our debt on the building and move forward both debt free and with a balanced budget,” Cohen Anisfeld, the first woman to lead the institution, told JTA in a phone conversation. “We are building a foundation of growth from a place of financial responsibility and sustainability.”

Cohen Anisfeld took over as president on July 1 after serving as acting president since November, succeeding Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, who stepped down after nearly 10 years. She was the longtime head of the college’s 15-year-old pluralistic rabbinical school. Its alumni serve in congregations, educational settings, chaplaincies, and in Hillels across North America and Israel.

The institution also includes a cantorial and advanced degree programs, adult education and teen programs including Prozdor.

While the main driver of the decision to sell the building was financial, two other key factors played a role, Cohen Anisfeld said.

One was the sale and move of Andover Newton Theological Seminary, a historic Protestant institution that until 18 months ago shared the hilltop campus with Hebrew College. Over many years, the two schools developed a strong interfaith partnership and also shared some administrative functions.

But Andover Newton affiliated with Yale University and in 2017 moved to its New Haven campus. The new owner of the 20-acre Andover-Newton site was interested in controlling the entire property, Cohen Anisfeld said.

While she did not name the purchaser of Hebrew College, she told JTA it is the same as the new owner of the Andover Newton property, a foundation associated with the Boston-based billionaire developer Gerald Chan.

Changing Jewish population demographics in Greater Boston was another key consideration. The student body across all of Hebrew College’s programs has become more geographically diverse, with students and program participants living in areas beyond Newton. Its graduate school of Jewish education offers online coursework.

Last week’s announcement is the latest chapter in the school’s on-again, off-again plans to sell its building designed by the renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.

Founded in 1921, the college moved to this location after outgrowing its cramped quarters in a rambling mansion in Brookline, a town contiguous to Boston. The new building, with wings connected via an inner courtyard, was financed with a $32 million loan that included a tax-free bond and a $5.2 million loan guarantee from the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

While many of the school’s signature programs, including Me’ah for adult learners, became national models, the college suffered from financial woes. Over the years it was forced to slash its budget and lay off staff.

In October 2010, Lehmann as president announced the school would sell its building in order to resolve its debt and planned to share quarters with Andover Newton. Less than two years later, before a deadline to move, Lehmann and the board reversed course and renegotiated its loan, reducing its debt to $7.4 million. As part of the refinancing, Combined Jewish Philanthropies paid the money tied to the school’s loan guarantee. Hebrew College was able to remain in its building.

While she would not release the terms of the sale, Cohen Anisfeld told JTA that as part of the transaction, Hebrew College will reimburse the $5.2 million to the federation.

“It’s exciting that the money will ultimately go back into the [Jewish] community,” she said, adding that she anticipates deepening the relationship with the federation, which continues to support the college with an annual contribution of slightly  more than $1.5 million. The college’s fiscal year 2019 budget is $8.8 million, Cohen Anisfeld said.

Rabbi David Starr, a one-time leader of Hebrew College who still teaches there, viewed the move as a good step that will position the school to focus on its mission and strengths. Starr, who had no prior knowledge of the sale, is a scholar of Jewish history and a research associate at Brandeis University.

The older conventional view that bigger and fancier facilities are needed to draw students has turned out to be “a dubious proposition,” Starr told JTA in a phone conversation. First-generation Jewish immigrants who erected prominent buildings did so to announce to their neighbors that they had arrived.

“The thing that has made it dynamic in the last decade and a half has been its programs,” Starr said of the college.

He said the financial burden of the debt and maintaining the building can be a distraction from the school’s mission.

“To the extent they have taken this off the table, I think that is great,” Starr said.

Cohen Anisfeld is upbeat and looking ahead.

“I’m seeing this as the launch of a three-year arc towards the centennial in the fall of 2021,” she said. “All of this is in the context of envisioning what the next phase will be, wanting to build on our strengths and innovate in the ways we serve the Jewish world, and to be able to do that from a foundation of fiscal responsibility.”

Since the announcement, Cohen Anisfeld said, she has had many conversations with people who have been part of the school’s history. While many are sad about the loss of the building and the adjustment may be tough, she acknowledged, there is also some relief for getting Hebrew College on solid footing.

“I have been so moved by the outpouring of support,” she said.

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