A Message from President Rehfeld Regarding Campus Closures and Travel, Planning for the Summer and Beyond, and Ordination and Graduation (May 7, 2020) - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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A Message from President Rehfeld Regarding Campus Closures and Travel, Planning for the Summer and Beyond, and Ordination and Graduation (May 7, 2020)

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Dear Friends,

In this week’s portion, Emor, the Torah enumerates the observance of the holy days of the Jewish year: the weekly Shabbat, Passover, the counting of the Omer culminating in the festival of Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Sukkot festival, and Shemini Atzeret. These highlights of the Jewish calendar, bespeaking the sanctity of time in our tradition, provide a structure for the ritual practice of Judaism and offer the reassurance of predictable and foreseeable spiritual respite, reflection, and communal gathering. This continuity, week after week, year after year, intensifies the holiness of our living in the moment. It also provides a sense of security and wellbeing as we anticipate the future.

Such a process of measuring time is also to be found in our academic calendar, which measures goals and achievements and annually peaks in meaningful, sanctified moments of culmination and celebration. Due to the pandemic, however, we are all living in a liminal moment, faced with uncertainty about the present and the near and more distant future. We are not able to rely on the predictable events, schedules, and planning that normally would tether the conclusion of our 145th academic year and launch our 146th.

It is for this reason that I want to use this week’s Shabbat message to share additional announcements about the state of the College-Institute amidst the ongoing Coronavirus crisis regarding campus closures and travel, planning for the summer and beyond, and ordination and graduation.

Guiding Principles

I first want to share with you the general approach our leadership team is taking to decisions related to the pandemic. The very best predictions anticipate that the coronavirus likely will require significant isolation for a long, yet-undetermined time period. Until there is a treatment, until a significant portion of the population is protected against COVID-19, and until there is widely available reliable testing, public health authorities are going to recommend continued social distancing, isolation, and quarantines.

At the same time, I recognize that our decisions have been and may continue to be more restrictive than what is and will be permissible by public authorities in any jurisdiction at any given time. Our elected leadership has an obligation to weigh a broader set of considerations than we do, starting with public health and extending to minimizing economic harm, building political consensus, and minimizing a wide range of liabilities. Consistent with our mission, we will continue to make decisions on a more restrictive basis, pursuing the principle of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, prioritizing the health and welfare of our community. In doing so, we will demonstrate the strong moral and religious leadership characteristic of the values of the College-Institute.

Campus Closures and Travel

Based on the recommendations of the CDC, all HUC campuses will remain closed for normal business, classes, events and gatherings through at least the end of May. Similarly, all bans on official travel for HUC-related activities will remain in place also until at least the end of May. 

Should local communities decide to open up before then based on the CDC’s phased approach, I will make a decision on whether to permit campus activity, limited or otherwise, in consultation with an advisory panel led by our new CFO that will include Dr. Ed Septimus, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Epidemiology, HCA Healthcare, Infectious Disease Specialist, Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, Houston, Texas, and member of our Cincinnati Board of Overseers. This decision will be based not only on the legal permissibility and minimal level of public health, but also on the intent to model the highest level of public, moral leadership. It is thus entirely possible that a local jurisdiction in which we operate might legally permit our reopening, but HUC will remain closed. Given the different places in which we operate, it is also possible that one of our campuses might open for classes and work as usual, while others would remain shut.

Summer and Fall Courses

The Year-In-Israel program has already announced it is holding its summer sessions on a distance learning format. Because students need considerable lead time to secure housing and move to Jerusalem, we have set a June 1 deadline to decide about the fall for our incoming rabbinical, cantorial, and double-masters education students.

The other HUC summer programs—the Zelikow School of Nonprofit Management, DeLeT, the EMA, and the LA Beit Midrash—will be online. The program directors and faculty are hard at work adapting these programs to a distance learning format in a way that will be engaging and enriching.

Anticipating that students in our other programs will likely have to make changes to their summer plans and to allow time for learning over the summer, we have put together an optional summer term with a variety of credit-bearing courses and non-credit bearing educational opportunities. There is no extra cost for these classes, which are included in 2020-21 tuition.

Along with colleges and universities around the world, we are beginning now to think beyond the summer and into the 2020-21 school year. We should all hope and pray that a treatment for the pandemic can be found before the fall, and that we are able to return to normal. However, I expect the most likely scenario we will face is on-again, off-again, periods of social isolation as the virus ebbs and flows differently in different places.

Given the significant effort needed to provide high quality distance learning for an entire semester, or possibly an entire year, we have started assembling working groups to prepare for that potentiality. These groups will work simultaneously to evaluate lessons learned from this past spring’s move to Zoom learning. They will also identify the technology and training needed to support our faculty and students to provide top notch online learning over an extended period of time, as we recognize that moving a class onto Zoom is not the same as a thoughtful approach to distance learning. In order to ensure that our educational mission remains the priority, these groups will be led by faculty and program staff, supported by our IT and other teams.

Ordination and Graduation

One of the most difficult but necessary decisions we made early in this crisis was to postpone our in-person graduation and ordination ceremonies. These ceremonies bring meaning and sanctity to mark the completion of years of study and hard work. In the case of ordination, the much anticipated ritual serves as a moment of spiritual transformation which many alumni speak of as one of the most important moments of their lives. 

To consider alternatives to the postponed in-person ceremonies, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of our New York Campus, convened an ordination task force comprised of faculty and students to recommend how best to proceed. Provost Weiss also worked with the relevant program directors to make decisions about graduation. As a result of those deliberations, we will take the following steps to honor and celebrate these moments of culmination for our students and honorees.

  • An online commencement is being planned for graduates of the Zelikow School, Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and EMA. The ceremony will take place on Wednesday, May 20.
  • Cantorial and rabbinical students receiving their master’s degrees and graduates of the Pines School and D.Min. Program will receive their diplomas by mail in May and they will be invited to walk in next year’s commencement ceremonies. Alumni receiving honorary doctorates and honorary degree recipients will be invited to participate in the 2021 graduations where we will have the chance to recognize and celebrate their significant contributions to the Jewish world then.
  • Rescheduled, in-person ordination ceremonies will be held at a time to be finalized after it is determined that it is again safe to gather in groups for religious and ceremonial occasions. In order to give the ordinees and their families and friends ample time to make arrangements to attend the rescheduled ceremonies, we are committed to building in a long lead time between the time we are back to “normal” and the time of the ceremonies. We will be monitoring public health announcements and will be in touch with students over the coming months as the pandemic continues to unfold.
  • Each of our stateside campuses is planning an online consecration ceremony in May to formally and meaningfully mark the completion of their formation as clergy. Each ceremony is being designed in ways that reflect the different campus cultures and aim to meet the desires of each campus cohort to ritually mark this moment of becoming rabbis and cantors. 

Final Thoughts

The continuity of the Jewish calendar emphasized in our Torah portion this week raises our awareness of the importance of sanctifying the passage of time. The reality is beginning to sink in that this pandemic is likely to be with us for a protracted period, and it will have significant negative consequence on public health, our individual psyches, and our shared economy. HUC-JIR will continue to support our faculty, students, and staff in a manner that expresses our highest values and ideals and that enables us to most effectively support our educational mission. Through our commitment to this work and these values we sanctify even these most challenging moments.

I continue to feel proud and optimistic about our future because I have seen how our faculty, students, and staff are addressing our present with determination and continued commitment to the enduring values upon which our College-Institute stands. I will continue to work hard to meet the standard that they have set. Thank you for your continued partnership as we chart this unprecedented path ahead together. 

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.