The Jewish Theological Seminary of America underwent broad layoffs in late June, despite the chancellor’s earlier indication that no further layoffs would be forthcoming.
Just weeks after announcing a new strategic plan that emphasized reducing costs and creating new revenue streams, JTS, Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary, has terminated 15 administrative employees in an effort to balance its 2010-2011 budget.
The latest round of layoffs comes five months after the school announced the elimination of the position of cantorial school dean, held for 12 years by Henry Rosenblum. At the time, Arnold Eisen, the seminary’s chancellor, told the Forward that he didn’t foresee further job losses. “I don’t anticipate other structural changes that will result in job cutbacks, no,” Eisen told the Forward in February.
Of the school’s new strategic plan, which, at that point, had yet to be unveiled, Eisen said, “It’s not necessarily going to result in clear-cut losses of positions.”
Eisen declined to be interviewed for this story. When asked whether the statements he made in February are contradicted by these latest cuts, he did not respond directly, but did e-mail the following statement: “JTS has always worked in a cost-conscious manner and we were therefore able to achieve a balanced budget for the 2010–11 fiscal year with relatively modest further cost reductions. That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t some difficult decisions — there were. Especially difficult was the reduction in force of 15 employees.”
He went on to say that JTS’s financial position as a result of the balanced budget would enable the school to move forward with its strategic plan.
The June layoffs were spread across seven administrative departments, including the library, the development office, the accounting department and the registrar. Thirteen of the eliminated positions were full-time; two were part-time. According to Elise Dowell, JTS’s chief communications officer, none of those who lost their jobs were senior administrative officials.
The JTS board thought it was important that the seminary enter the 2010–2011 year with a balanced budget, according to Robert Rifkind, a board member. “Sure, one wishes one had all the money in the world, [but] we’re realists and we know that we don’t,” Rifkind said.
Historian Jonathan Sarna said that the emphasis on the institution living within its means was a sign of a trend toward increased fiscal discipline across the Jewish institutional world. “The optimism that once allowed governing boards to permit institutions to maintain deficits and dip into their endowments has given way across the Jewish world, I think, to a sense that very conservative accounting practices have to be maintained and a ‘no risk’ policy needs to be introduced,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
This is the second consecutive fiscal year in which the seminary has cut jobs for budgetary reasons. In 2009, the seminary laid off 27 people and levied pay cuts on others. At the time, Eisen took a 10% pay cut.
JTS currently employs 241 faculty and staff members.
Contributing editor Debra Nussbaum Cohen contributed reporting.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.