So long, Tzuba

URJ to merge its high school Israel program with JNF-USA’s Alexander Muss

Heller High to shutter its Kibbutz Tzuba campus and hand over secular studies, administration to Muss in bid to be more cost-effective

The Union for Reform Judaism is shutting down its Kibbutz Tzuba campus outside Jerusalem for its Heller High Israel program and will move to the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School campus in Hod Hasharon beginning this fall, the movement announced on Wednesday.

As a part of the move, the Heller High program – formerly known as NFTY EIE (Eisendrath International Exchange) High School Semester in Israel – will also hand over its secular, non-Israel-related studies and administration to Alexander Muss. The Heller High students will be housed in separate dorms from the Alexander Muss students, and the Reform movement will still be responsible for all religious programming and Israel-focused instruction, URJ said.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the vice president of the URJ for Israel and Reform Zionism and a senior advisor to Heller High, told eJewishPhilanthropy that the merger was meant to make the program more efficient and cost-effective.

“Why should we be spending the money to run our own program there on general studies when we could do it together with other groups and be more efficient while maintaining the integrity of our program,” Weinberg said.

The move comes as the Reform movement has faced significant financial challenges, driven in part by a marked decline in dues revenue over the last 15 years. According to JTA, URJ dues revenues went from $15 million in the mid-2000s to $5.4 million annually as of last year, when the movement shuttered its full-time rabbinical school in Cincinnati.

Weinberg said the merger was not the result of one particular development – a specific cut in funding or decrease in the number of participants – but was something the movement has “been thinking about for a long time… and we thought that it was a good time to make the move now.”

Weinberg said the program, which URJ has run since 1961, consistently has approximately 100 students over the course of the year, most of them coming from the movement’s camp system, with approximately 30 participating in its fall semester and 70 in the spring. Weinberg said the merger was not expected to reduce the number of participants.

The merger will result in the dismissal of several current Heller High staff members, Weinberg acknowledged, though he said the Reform movement is looking to mitigate that as much as possible.

“That’s going to be part of additional discussions and negotiations with Alexander Muss as we move forward, but I’m hoping we can keep as many of the people as possible,” Weinberg said. “Part of the beauty of the program is the people who run it, so that’s really important.”

Steve Kutno, Alexander Muss’ head of school, hailed the new partnership, saying it would allow the programs to “grow the impact we offer students through high-quality accredited coursework, independent living opportunities and personal relationships that shape memories that last a lifetime.”

Weinberg, who previously taught in the Heller High program, said the move away from Kibbutz Tzuba, which is located in the Judean hills west of the Israeli capital, was disappointing but highlighted the opportunity that it represented for the future participants to interact with the Reform congregations around Hod Hasharon.

“Kibbutz Tzuba is a very special place that many of us have a lot of love and connection to, and that’ll be sad. But Hod Hasharon is also in eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” he said. “We have several Reform congregations in and around Hod Hasharon… and I think it’ll be a great opportunity for them to spend more time on the ground with the movement.”

In a letter to Heller High parents, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said the merger would allow the movement to “hone in on [its] focus to provide students with an unparalleled Reform Jewish educational experience that will strengthen and deepen their understanding and relationship to Israel and Judaism through a Reform lens.”

Jacobs added that partnering with Muss allowed Heller High to offer “additional access to in-person secular academic programs that will continue to allow them to maintain the curriculum from their schools at home.”