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Ohio AG at odds with Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College

brick and steel building entrance
Klau Library

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost says sacred texts at a Cincinnati library should not be sold. The effort comes after a report from WVXU news partner WCPO that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) is considering selling rare books from the Klau Library collections, and rumors on campus that the library is being closed and the staff let go.

The AG sought a temporary restraining order Tuesday in the courtroom of Hamilton County Judge Megan Shanahan to prevent "the sale of copies of the Talmud and other ancient books." After conferring with with both sides in chambers, there was no action in court and Shanahan scheduled a hearing on a preliminary injunction for July 12.

"These sacred texts are invaluable artifacts — religious and cultural treasures." Yost says in a release. "Their sale would not only betray donor trust but also may violate legal restrictions placed on the gifts."

In a statement to WVXU, HUC-JIR says it has no plans to sell the books.

"HUC-JIR is focused on preserving our collections and increasing scholarly access to them. We have no plans to sell or deaccession any rare books or manuscripts, or to close the library," says Patricia Keim, assistant vice president of marketing and communications. "We have retained a rare books expert to assess our holdings, and we remain committed to responsible management of the Klau Library and its critical role in the study of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish civilization."

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It was that hiring of a rare books expert that rose eyebrows. WCPO I-Team investigator Dan Monk last month reported that representatives from Sotheby’s, an auction house, visited the Klau Library and assessed the collection. The I-Team also states it obtained a copy of the now-former director of libraries' letter stating he was resigning over pressure to sell rare books.

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The Hebrew Union College Board of Governors in New York voted in April 2022 to sunset rabbi ordinations at the college's Cincinnati campus by the end of the 2026 academic year. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. It now has campuses in Los Angeles, New York, and Jerusalem.

"The Klau Library, on the campus of the Hebrew Union College is, and this is without exaggeration, one of the most historic and the most important Jewish libraries in the world," says Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director emeritas of the American Jewish Archives.

Zola says he's disappointed and astonished, noting what he and others heard prior to today contradicts the college's statement to WVXU. He's not taking the college at its word.

"Now we're told that ... the attorney general is so concerned about the future of this, of what's being done with the library, that the attorney general has intervened. I would say that, yes, this community is rightfully appalled, and very disappointed."

He adds, "In my opinion, this library belongs to the people of Cincinnati who built it up for 150 years; it belongs to the Jewish community of Cincinnati, and in my opinion, in fact, it is the patrimony of the Jewish people around the world."

Updated: June 4, 2024 at 4:28 PM EDT
This story has been updated with comments from Rabbi Gary Zola.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.