The basement classroom where the first class took place
The basement classroom where the first class took place. Photo by americanjewisharchives.org
Text size

On October 4, 1875, the first class of the Hebrew Union College, the first Reform rabbinical school – and the first successful rabbinical seminary of any denomination -- convened in the United States, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The founder of the college was Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), the German-born rabbi who arrived in the United States in 1846. In 1850, Wise got into a fistfight – on Rosh Hashanah, no less – with the president of the Albany, New York, synagogue where he was then presiding. Four years later, he took up a position at a Cincinnati synaogogue. Cincinnati had been the first city founded in the United States following the American Revolution, and at the time, it was the biggest city, with the largest Jewish population, west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Using the city as his base, Wise began creating the institutions -- a prayerbook, a weekly newspaper, a rabbinical assembly -- that were to constitute the foundations of American Reform Judaism. Most significantly, these institutions also included the umbrella organization of Reform synagogues, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which Wise founded in 1873 with 28 member congregations.

With a rabbinical conference and a union of congregations, it was obvious that the Reform movement now required a training college. Henry Adler, a Cincinnati Jew, helped the cause by offering Wise a challenge grant of $10,000 if he could raise the same amount on his own for the college.

The “campus” of the college on that October 1875 day was a single room in the basement of Cincinnati’s Mound Street Temple (the home of Congregation Bene Israel). According to most sources, there were 14 students present. The youngest was 11 years old, which considering that the other students were of high school age (David Philipson, for example, was 13), was not completely bizarre. What is surprising is that she was a girl, named Julia Ettlinger. She wasn’t intended to become a rabbi – it would be another century before even the Reform movement began ordaining women – but according to scholar Gary Zola, quoting another, unnamed researcher, for reasons of institutional dignity, “the Hebrew Union College had to be drummed up” in the size of its student body.

That first class had three teachers – Wise, Rabbi Max Lilienthal and Solomon Eppinger, who, according to David Philipson, who later became a leading rabbi in the Cincinnati community, was the grandfather of Julia Ettlinger. According to Philipson, the boys resented the presence of girls in their class (there was a second one, a niece of Isaac Mayer Wise), and so one day, “one of their number hid the books of Julia Ettlinger… When the matter came to attention of Mr. Eppinger,” wrote Philipson in a reminiscence seven decades later, “he flew into a rage. He reported the matter to Dr. Wise, who threatened to dismiss the class unless the books were returned. The culprit, thoroughly frightened, managed to get the books to Julia without betraying his identity, and the matter became a closed incident.”

Six years later, in 1881, the school moved into its own quarters, a mansion on West Sixth Street, in downtown Cincinnati. By 1912, a new, 18-acre campus was inaugurated in the suburb of Clifton, near the University of Cincinnati.

Initially, the program at the college took eight years to complete. Entering as teenagers, the students would spend their mornings at their secular schools – four years in high school and four at the college level. Their HUC classes took place in the afternoons over that same eight-year period. Eventually, a ninth year was added, whose entirety was devoted to final studies and preparations for rabbinical ordination.

The graduation, in 1883, of the first class of HUC has gone down in the annals of American Jewish history for the celebratory banquet that accompanied the event. The menu for that legendary “Treyfa Banquet” included not only a mixture of dairy and meat dishes, but also shellfish (littleneck clams, according to scholar Lance R. Sussman) – sending a message about the relationship of Reform to Jewish tradition, and, some say, leading indirectly to the opening of a Conservative seminary.