An academics debate

School: Funders pushing for more practical courses of study at Baltimore Hebrew University are at odds with its faculty.

June 07, 2000|By John Rivera and Kate Shatzkin | John Rivera and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A tug of war is going on at Baltimore Hebrew University between the people who run it and the people who pay for it.

The dispute: Should the Upper Park Heights school continue focusing on academic research or turn to more practical pursuits, such as training teachers and other professionals to serve the Jewish community?

On one side is The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the fund-raising umbrella that is BHU's biggest contributor.

"It has been an academic institution, we wish it to remain an academic institution," said Shoshana S. Cardin, chairman of The Associated's task force on postsecondary Jewish education.

But at the same time, she said, "We're facing, both nationally and locally, a critical shortage of accredited teachers. There is this wonderful push to teach our history, our traditions, our literature."

On the other side, members of the BHU faculty and board of trustees are resisting what they call an attempt to turn the 80-year-old university into "a trade school."

"We feel that if the teachers are going to learn, they have to learn serious stuff: Bible, rabbinics, Jewish history, Jewish philosophy and so forth," said Robert O. Freedman, the expert in Middle Eastern studies who is BHU's outgoing president.

The Associated's position, he said, "is that you can sort of whittle that down and make this a trade school."

At stake is the school's identity, its future and possibly its existence. School officials are worried that attempts by The Associated to exert control could threaten BHU's accreditation.

In a meeting triggered by the dispute, accreditation officials met with BHU and The Associated leaders last week to spell out requirements of the accreditation process, but there's no timetable on a decision.

The dispute has cost Freedman his job as university president. At the request of the president of BHU's board of trustees, he will resign the post at the end of the academic year this month.

"It reached the point where The Associated felt their relationship with [Freedman] had become more confrontational than accommodational," said Rabbi Mark Loeb, who became president of the board in March, after his predecessor resigned. "And it became clear that could not continue to be the case."

Behind the dispute lies a basic disagreement about the mission of a community-based Jewish university.

Baltimore Hebrew University, which has 10 full-time faculty members, is one of five colleges of Jewish studies in the United States not affiliated with any of the branches of Judaism. They were all established between 80 and 100 years ago to preserve and transmit Jewish culture, and to train academics and professionals to serve the Jewish community. Other institutions are in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago.

What has changed in recent years is that more than 300 non-Jewish universities have established Jewish studies departments, although locally only the University of Maryland, College Park has such a program. This development has led some to question the need for local Jewish universities to be so academically oriented.

Not only has the academic scene changed, but so has the Jewish community. Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed an intermarriage rate of more than 50 percent, there has been an acute concern over the survival of Jewish life and culture in the United States.

That concern has led to a push by local Jewish federations for more courses in adult education and for programs to train teachers for Jewish day schools, as well as preparation for professionals, such as social workers, to serve the community.

In BHU's case, that concern was reflected in a report issued by Cardin's task force on secondary education in March, which criticized the university for being unresponsive to student and community needs. It specifically noted the need for courses for educators in pedagogy and content that is relevant to the curriculum in synagogue-based schools.

A response by the BHU board proposed starting a joint education degree program with Goucher College, where students could do Jewish studies at BHU and education courses at Goucher; initiating a 15-credit certificate program for teachers in synagogue schools; and hiring an additional teacher in Jewish education.

The proposal was rejected by The Associated's task force, which has given BHU's board a July 1 deadline to come up with a revised budget and until September to produce a curriculum strategy.

"These are things which go on top of what already is, but don't involve a rethinking of the institution at its core," said Matt Freedman, The Associated's director of community planning and allocations. "It is about making sure the courses on Bible reflect the needs of classroom educators."

But some BHU trustees believe such a rethinking of its mission will threaten its integrity.

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