NYU Bid To Take Over Center for Jewish History Called ‘Dead on Arrival’

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 31, 2007, issue of November 02, 2007.
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The ink is barely dry on New York University’s preliminary plan for bailing out the financially strapped Center for Jewish History, but some insiders at the center have wasted little time in proclaiming it dead on arrival.

Senior leaders at the two institutions are billing a newly proposed merger as a mutually beneficial arrangement that would boost the academic standing of NYU and secure the future of the center, a consortium holding one of the world’s most valuable Jewish archives. But in the weeks since university officials outlined their initial offer in a six-page memorandum, some among the center’s member groups have voiced opposition — including one longtime board member of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, America’s premier archive for the study of Eastern European Jewry, who has resigned.

“YIVO has given up a lot of its independence with the center, and it will be even worse with NYU,” said Warren Grover, who served on YIVO’s board for 22 years and submitted his resignation October 17. “I was opposed to the whole deal.”

While Grover, who is opposed to any sort of merger, believes he represents a minority position, he is not alone among those expressing reservations about NYU’s current plan.

Parts of the memorandum are “unclear to the point of dangerous,” said a board member of one of the center’s five partner groups. The member wished to remain anonymous, because of admonitions from the center against speaking to the press. “I think it is dead on arrival with all the organizations — as it stands,” the board member said.

At the center’s formation in 2000, its goal was to create synergy among its five member groups: YIVO, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Yeshiva University Museum, the American Sephardi Federation and the Leo Baeck Institute, which documents the history of German-speaking Jewry. But the groups have struggled to meet their operating budgets and to service the debt on their jointly owned building, which is located near New York City’s Union Square. Meanwhile, the center’s chairman, Bruce Slovin, has long pursued a merger with NYU’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.

On October 3, Slovin presented leaders of the center’s member groups with NYU’s “confidential memorandum,” a copy of which has since been obtained by the Forward. The plan envisions the transfer of the center’s ownership to NYU, which would relocate its department of Hebrew and Judaic studies to the building and create a center for advanced study that would host scholars from other institutions.

The proposed merger would create the largest institution outside Israel for Judaic research and promises a number of benefits to center members, including payouts from the university that could equal the groups’ initial investments in the building and NYU’s assumption of the center’s debt.

The plan requires member groups to remain at the center for a decade, and it releases NYU from its obligation to maintain the building as a center for Jewish studies after a period of 20 years. In its current form, the plan calls for a new board of directors with 25 members, 15 of whom will be directly appointed by NYU and 10 of whom will be nominated by the partner groups and approved by the university.

Some connected with the center’s partner groups are raising concerns about several features of the plan, which is currently being vetted both by a committee assembled by Slovin and by the groups themselves.

The chief concerns about the plan include the fact that it calls for relocating NYU’s department to areas of the center that currently hold archives, potentially forcing materials to be relocated off-site. Another concern is the lack of an iron-clad assurance that the groups will recoup the entirety of their initial investments.

“There is no way the deal could go through in its existing form,” said the director of one of the center’s member groups.

One element almost certain to be contentious is the university’s proposal to raise an operating endowment of $65 million, which would be used to fund both the center and NYU’s department of Hebrew and Judaic studies. It is unclear to what degree the endowment would benefit the member groups, which would remain independent and retain ownership of their archives but would also become tenants of the university, with their own significant operating expenses. Under the current proposal, for example, YIVO would owe the university nearly $200,000 in yearly rent charges.

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