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Gratz President Departs as College Looks Ahead

July 23, 2009 By:
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Jonathan Rosenbaum
Gratz College, the 114-year-old institution that has trained generations of religious-school teachers, has announced that, after 11 years at the helm, Jonathan Rosenbaum will be leaving his post the end of the month.

The departure comes at a time when a number of traditional Hebrew colleges, much like Gratz, are to be struggling, both financially and in terms of focusing on a workable mission, especially when Jewish-studies programs are now plentiful at secular institutions.

Rosenbaum, a specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies, has been described by many as a prodigious fundraiser who has helped Gratz make the transition into the digital age while broadening its efforts at adult education. Others, though, have complained that Gratz has focused on its online presence at the expense of on-campus courses, particularly in the realm of Jewish education.

The longtime educator and Reform rabbi said that the decision to leave was his choice and came out of discussions with the board. Bruce Holberg, chairman of Gratz's board of governors, said that he couldn't discuss the specifics of how the decision was made.

"A college presidency is a constant, 24-hours-a-day kind of job. I wanted the chance to do some things that I just would not be able to do in the constant, morning-till-night work," said Rosenbaum, 62, who hopes to write a book on ancient Israel and focus on other scholarly work. He's planning to remain in the Philadelphia area. He has been named president emeritus at Gratz.

Holberg said that the board is forming a committee to conduct a search for Rosenbaum's successor.

For now, Holberg and acting COO Joy Goldstein will run the college.

"We want somebody who can continue the educational excellence of Gratz, and also be entrepreneurial and be a good fundraiser and have a great vision for the place," explained Holberg.

He credited Rosenbaum with strengthening Gratz's Jewish Community High School, starting a doctoral program in education and spearheading Gratz's transition into online education. Holberg also said that by creating a master's degree in secular education -- pursued mostly by non-Jews -- and instituting continuing legal education classes, Rosenbaum helped stabilize the school's finances.

Financial Troubles
But Gratz has not gone untouched by the economic downturn, just as other traditional Hebrew colleges have struggled to survive. For example, this year, Baltimore Hebrew College voted to merge with Towson State University.

Gratz was forced to lay off several nonfaculty employees and instituted a salary cut for those making more than $50,000 a year.

Still, though both Rosenbaum and Holberg insisted that the school is not in financial crisis, they did acknowledge it would fall short of its fundraising goals.

The school's annual budget is roughly $5.5 million. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia provides about 10 percent of that sum, and much of the rest comes from fundraising efforts.

Aside from financial matters, there are critics of the college's present academic health.

Rabbi Robert Layman -- who served on the board of governors from 2002 to 2006, and attended Gratz in the 1950s -- said that while the high school and adult-education programs are unqualified successes, the college component has languished from lack of attention.

"The actual enrollment of students of Jewish studies in the program in the college is hardly enough to justify its continued existence," said Layman.

Of 241 students pursuing bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates in Jewish studies, roughly 60 percent of those complete most of their course work online.

"To many of us, the delivery system for the education is a lot less important than the quality and content of the education," said Holberg. "The people taking it online are receiving a top-notch education."

Still, he did say that the school is planning a systematic evaluation of its future in the form of a strategic study, slated for the fall.

When that's accomplished, Holberg said, "I think that we'll have a pretty complete picture of where we need to go."

 

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