Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College, Greater Boston’s largest institution for Jewish learning and home of its only rabbinical school, plans to step down during the coming academic year.
Since becoming president in 2008, Lehmann has helped the college stabilize its finances; increase enrollment in its rabbinical school, adult education programs, and master’s program in Jewish education; and develop interfaith partnerships.
“It’s the right time for some new leadership,” he said in an interview this week.
Lehmann, 55, led the institution through a painful period when it briefly put its Newton Centre campus on the market in hopes of unloading a large mortgage on its building, designed by the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. With the help of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a major supporter of the institution, and others, the college in 2012 managed to retire more than $32 million in mortgage debt and regain its financial footing.
“It’s remarkable, really, what he was able to do, when one remembers that there were many people who thought that the institution would go under,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University.
“Today, with its rabbinical school and many of its other programs, the place is hopping. He managed to put the whole issue of the building and its financial problems into the past and really move the institution forward.”
Hebrew College has faced some of the same headwinds that have toppled other institutions that educate religious leaders, including declining religious participation and affiliation with institutions. The college’s rabbinical school has just over 60 full-time students, who are among nearly 200 students seeking graduate degrees or certificates. Hundreds more are in nondegree, adult learning, and youth education programs.
Its neighbor in Newton Centre and partner on early interreligious educational initiatives, Andover Newton Theological School — the nation’s oldest graduate institution of theological education — recently sold its campus and will relocate to New Haven in the coming school year to pursue a partnership with Yale University.
Under the guidance of Lehmann, who is earning about $290,000 this budget year, Hebrew College has survived and even grown by responding to its market.
At a time when denominational identification is in free fall among younger Jews, Hebrew College has distinguished itself as a respected pluralistic institution. It has added online adult education classes and small classes for young adults in living rooms around Boston. Enrollment in Prozdor, its traditional educational program for teens, has declined, but the college is trying new youth initiatives, such as becoming the regional host of a national program that teaches teenagers about Jewish values and philanthropy.
Lehmann’s personal interest in interfaith learning and relationship building has dovetailed with a growing movement toward interfaith work in theological education. The college has offered joint courses and public events with Boston University’s School of Theology and for the first time this past year developed a partnership with the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. At Lehmann’s request, Hebrew College became the first non-Christian member of the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of nine graduate schools of theology. Lehmann is now the board chair.
Lehmann, who made his mark in Jewish education as a founding headmaster of Gann Academy, a successful pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, said he will probably leave by January, depending on the progress of the search committee to find his replacement, and then take a sabbatical. He is planning writing projects on pluralism in Jewish education and interreligious theology.
“I don’t know what his third act will be, or whether it will be in Boston, but there are not many people in Jewish professional life — and certainly I can’t think of anybody of his age — who could say I created one institution and transformed another,” Sarna said. “And in both cases he left at the top of his game.”
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