HEBREW COLLEGE, transdenominational institution of Jewish higher education located in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Founded in 1921 and first located in Roxbury, then the center of Boston Jewish life, through its several generations the college has followed the dynamism of the Boston Jewish community, relocating with post-World War II Jews to suburban Brookline in 1953, then to Newton in 2001.
At one time locally based and focused mainly on the Boston and New England Jewish community, the contemporary Hebrew College serves the American and worldwide Jewish community, via an array of degree and other educational programs designed for the entire gamut of the life cycle. That includes training for early childhood educators, day school and Hebrew school educators, a Prozdor for middle and high school students, Camp Yavneh, a summer camp for Jewish youth, degree programs ranging from bachelor's and master's degrees to rabbinic and cantorial ordinations, Hebrew language intensive Ulpan, and a host of adult learning opportunities including the two-year course known as Me'ah. Its mission has always been to provide a link between the world of higher education, academic Jewish studies, and the Jewish community.
Its birth in 1921 reflected several trends in American, American Jewish, and modern Jewish history. The rise of new ideologies in the wake of the breakdown of Jewish communal and cultural life meant a new approach to the question of a new culture and new identity for Jews. This involved centrally new approaches to education, as the vehicle for cultural transmission. The college, founded primarily by Hebraists, Zionists, legatees of the East European Haskalah, along with its sister institutions in other American cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago, to name a few, expressed these trends in its commitment to Hebrew language and culture. Its first location, Roxbury, lay at the heart of the burgeoning Jewish ethnic and religious community of Boston.
Its founding also stemmed from a particular moment in American Jewish life. The considerable energy that the immigrants expended in integration and acculturation, and the host of ethnic social welfare institutions created by them, (such as burial societies, free loan networks, landsmenschaften, synagogues), had not been matched by equal investment in Jewish educational institutions. This stemmed from lack of funds, the paucity of resources such as trained educators and few rabbinic immigrants, and some degree of disinterest and disagreement about what Jewish education should be. After World War I, there arose a series of Bureaus of Jewish Education, centralized institutions that began to create a momentum for routinizing and standardizing Jewish education, which would include the building of modern talmud torahs and the training of teachers to staff those new sorts of congregational and community schools.
These developments suggest the importance of the American context, particularly ideas of cultural pluralism on the one hand, and Progressivism on the other. Cultural pluralism, as articulated by figures like Randolph Bourne and Horace Kallen, saw America as a republic of nationalities, a symphony with distinctive parts contributing to a greater whole, an entity dependent upon those parts for their enduring existence. No matter the internal debates about what Jewish culture should be, Jews as an ethnic group had a right to exist, and should maintain group cohesion, so went this worldview. The college, with its de-emphasis of religious ideology and its embrace of the Jewish cultural heritage, dovetailed beautifully with such pluralism.
So too with Progressivism, which saw organization as a key to solving the myriad challenges of modern life. The increasing professionalization of modernity, the belief in rationalism and rational methods for creating organizations to problem solve, found expression in American higher education. The early part of the 20th century witnessed young Jews at institutions like Columbia's Teacher's College, where they imbibed the ideas of thinkers such as John Dewey. The head of the New York City Jewish Kehillah's Bureau of Jewish Education, Samson *Benderly, inspired a whole generation of such future Jewish educational leaders. These men and women went on to found schools and summer camps like Yavneh; they played key roles in the emerging Hebrew College movement. Yavneh in particular signaled the belief that culture must be actualized through living experience, in formal and informal contexts. They also believed that modernized culture required intellectual deliberation. Method was necessary to rethink and re-engineer teacher training, the writing of new textbooks, the building of new schools.
Trends in postwar America contributed to the college's reformulation of its program, if not its larger purpose. The founding of the State of Israel, and declining interest in intensive Jewish supplementary education, led to the weakening of Hebraism as an ideology and as an approach to Jewish education. For a considerable time, the college was the one place where Jewishly interested intellectuals could seriously pursue advanced academic Judaic studies. The list of prominent alumni includes the journalist Theodore White, and academics such as Walter Ackerman, Arnold Band, Ben Halpern, Paula Hyman, Frank Manuel, and Isadore Twersky, men and women of diverse religious and Jewish ideological perspectives who went on to prominent academic careers at UCLA, Brandeis, Harvard, and Yale.
The explosion of academic Jewish studies challenged the college's mission in that regard. In its place has come the new emphasis upon adult Jewish learning, as the baby boom has
In its most recent phase it has truly become a national institution, recruiting students literally from around the globe, who may also study from around the globe via the Internet and the college's online offerings, including an M.A. degree.
Hebrew College represents the twin modern dynamics of building and subverting in Jewish cultural life. It maintains Jewish life while it changes it, incorporating the modern tensions between ethnicity and religion. It accepts classical notions of what constitutes Jewish culture, for example biblical and rabbinic texts, even as it experiments with new genres such as modern Hebrew literature that serve to expand our notion of the Jewish cultural canon. In recent years this has taken on programmatic form as the college embraced rabbinic and cantorial training, and moved – albeit transdenominationally – to a greater degree of openness to trends in contemporary spiritual life such as neo-mysticism.
Similarly, the College embodies interesting structural tensions of being Jewish in America. It espouses the virtue of Jewish community, and sees itself as among the vanguard of institutions training Jewish leaders, albeit in an American context much more comfortable with individualism and liberalism. Its physical place, situated alongside of the Andover Newton Theological School, the oldest Protestant seminary in America, symbolizes the college's increasing receptivity to participating in the larger American realm of higher religious education. It remains both communally based as well as academically elitist, striving to maintain the standards American Jews associate with academic excellence. Nowhere is this more in emphasis than in the college's commitment to adult learning, which attempts to bridge the distance between the folk and the elite as bulwarks of contemporary Jewish life.