The local Jewish community might have been shocked last week when HaMaqom | The Place, the Berkeley-based adult education organization known for decades as Lehrhaus Judaica, announced that it would be shutting its doors at the end of the summer session.
But the institution’s leadership was not caught off guard. Financial woes had been growing at the nonprofit, although chief financial and operating officer Jaimie Baxter, speaking to J. on Monday, declined to say when the troubles began.
“We were financially stable and secure for quite some time due to the generosity of several funders and donors mixed together,” was all Baxter would say. “Every year is different in the financial landscape of Jewish nonprofits. The funder landscape is ever shifting.”
Founded in 1974, Lehrhaus/HaMaqom has served more than 100,000 students and offered more than 7,500 courses over the life of the organization in such topics as Talmud, Hebrew language and the basics of Judaism, as well as the arts, history, interfaith issues, social justice, cuisine and wine, death and mourning, and many other areas.
By this spring, leadership agreed they were no longer able to sustain the organization and its impressive roster of local educators.
Was the financial trouble related to what had become a revolving door at the top? Founding director Fred Rosenbaum retired in 2017, after more than 40 years steering the organization. He was replaced by Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, who stayed for three years before leaving to be senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills — but not before he changed the organization’s name to HaMaqom | The Place, a decision that had many in the community scratching their heads. (HaMaqom, pronounced ha-mah-comb, is Hebrew for “the place.”)
Morrison was replaced in May 2020 by Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, former head of school at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, who left in early 2021 after less than a year.
In March of this year, Rabbi Ruth Adar took over as executive director with a mission to try and save the bottom line. A board member for more than 10 years, she was also HaMaqom’s single largest private donor, “to the tune of half a million dollars,” she pointed out. So, for her, “It was a personal issue,” she told J.
It was personal in other ways as well. In 1995, Adar took an Intro to Judaism class at Lehrhaus as part of her conversion process. Later she returned to study Hebrew in order to attend Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained a Reform rabbi. Lehrhaus has been, she says, a big part of her life.
“I came on three months ago and took a deep dive into the question of sustainability,” Adar said. “We had made great strides over the last year, but I had serious questions. When I looked at it, I realized it was not financially sustainable.”
The “great strides” during the Covid lockdown included a 137 percent jump in attendance, as courses went online and participants joined in from all over the globe. More than 1,800 students took advantage of some 80 “learning opportunities” this past year, according to the website.
But tuition fees cover only 18 to 20 percent of HaMaqom’s overall budget, Baxter said. Again, not enough.
Operating during the pandemic was “a mixed bag,” Adar said. Attendance was up, but so were expenses; it cost a “considerable amount” to move everything online and to train the educators in the skills they needed to teach virtually.
Finally, the decision was made to shut down. “We wanted to be sure, once it was clear this was going to be the decision, to do it with the greatest sense of responsibility we could,” Adar said, “and not wind up buried in debt or buried in scandal, or simply shutting the doors and leaving people to fend for themselves.”
The organization’s office space within the Berkeley Hillel building on Bancroft Avenue, including the outdoor patio, will be taken over by Hillel sometime before the start of UC’s fall semester.
Now the leadership has committed itself to finding homes for HaMaqom’s courses and educators — every single one, if Adar has her way — so the learning will continue, albeit not via the institution known as HaMaqom. Eight Talmud circles and 14 self-directed Kevah Jewish study groups need to be placed as well. Staff has been busy compiling lists of all of the educators on its roster and what they have to offer, and studying local Jewish organizations that might be good fits.
“I want these classes to be available to other Jews and people curious about Judaism, I want these programs in a place where they can be sustained, and these wonderful teachers in a place where they can make decent parnassah,” Adar said, using the Hebrew for “making a living.”
No placements have yet been arranged, she said.
Speaking from his home in New York, Rosenbaum, Lehrhaus’ founding director, told J. that he is not mourning the end of the educational institution he was instrumental in creating in 1974, along with philanthropist Seymour Fromer and Rabbi Steven Robbins, director of Berkeley Hillel at the time.
Rather, he’s celebrating what it has given to the community.
“Naturally I’d have liked a different outcome,” he said. “But I focus on what we have accomplished, the impact we have made in our nearly half a century.”
Rosenbaum was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when he brought to the Bay Area the seminar-centric, dialogue-focused style of Jewish learning that had been pioneered 55 years earlier in Frankfurt, Germany, by Franz Rosenzweig’s Free Jewish Learning Institute.
Rosenbaum’s faith in the power of the student-driven educational model remains strong. “It is in the hands of the students and teachers,” he said. “It’s not about the institution. And that style of learning is going to continue. The spirit of it will live on, just in another form.”
Though dozens of supporters have posted to an online comments page set up by HaMaqom, the decision to close is “irreversible,” Baxter said.
And though some of those supporters are urging the Jewish community to rally behind HaMaqom and find last-minute donors to shore it up, that isn’t going to happen, Baxter and Adar stated.
“While we appreciate the rally of support, we want to be clear that the decision to wind up and dissolve the organization has been made and is not reversible,” Baxter said. “The best thing the community can do to help is to support us in finding new homes for the programs, educators and staff.”