Rabbi Shook: Isaac Mayer Wise is spinning in his grave

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Rabbi Mark Shook

Mark L. Shook, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Temple Israel

June 3, 2022, will mark fifty years since I was ordained a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio. Looking at photos taken at the time, I am appalled to realize I was wearing a powder blue polyester suit. In the oppressive summer heat of Cincinnati, I should have made a better sartorial choice.

Newly ordained Rabbi Mark and Carol Shook

There are many reasons to take note of that event now, not the least of which is that the Rabbinical program on the Cincinnati campus may be terminated. If you wish to be ordained from HUC, you are going to have to attend either the New York Campus or the Los Angeles Campus. And so, ends the midwestern ambiance and tone of Reform Judaism.

All that will remain is the American Jewish Archives, and it will only be a matter of time before some generous donor decides he/she really needs to have the Archives closer to Manhattan.

That the college was in Cincinnati in the first place was just a matter of convenience for its founder, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Who is to say whether HUC might have been based in Albany, New York, had Wise not been unceremoniously pushed out of his Albany congregation? HUC in Cincinnati was on the frontier.

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When Wise arrived in Cincinnati, the boundary between slave state and free state straddled the Ohio River. When the college was founded in 1875, the aftershocks of the Civil War were still present in the cultural conversations of the city. The new rabbinical school became the backbone of the network of Reform Jewish congregations in the Midwest and South.

Before 1970, nearly every American Reform Rabbi took a turn serving as the student rabbi for some small Southern congregation, on a bi-weekly basis. Student rabbis were often openly cautioned about the impact their liberal civil rights attitudes would have on the lives of their congregants. “Rabbi, just remember, you get to go back to Cincinnati on Sunday. We have to live here the rest of the week.”

American Jewish life has now become concentrated along the East and West coasts. The Reform movement is no exception. Coastal congregations call the shots, set the agendas, and make up the preponderance of membership on Union for Reform Judaism committees, large and small. The daily pace of that life is killer-fast.

Back in the 1980’s, as a rabbi serving a congregation in Atlantic City, NJ, I would often attend rabbi meetings in Manhattan. With each mile my car got me closer to Central Park, I could feel my blood pressure rise. I observed that, in New York, every ordinary problem metastasized into a major Jewish existential dilemma. People under pressure make poor decisions.

Change is necessary. Perhaps ending rabbinic education in Cincinnati is necessary for the health of the college. But I cannot help getting the feeling that something truly worthwhile will be lost without our newest rabbis experiencing a non-coastal perspective on Jewish life.  My time in the Queen City of the West taught me to have a great deal of respect for the strength and courage of Jews in small communities, who cannot take their Judaism for granted. Maybe Rabbi Wise was on to something.