The Big Win

In a week that began with tragic news, there was one unalloyed cause for celebration: on Tuesday, Rabbi David H. Ellenson was named president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). This, as they say, is huge: for Ellenson, for Reform Jewry, for Los Angeles.

Ellenson is a widely respected scholar and a much-loved teacher. As news spread of his appointment, one elated former student said, “My image of him is this wonderful teacher in his cardigan and his beard sitting on a desk in front of the class — and now he’s the president!”

Rabbi Lewis Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school, was equally ecstatic. “This is great news for HUC and the Reform movement and Jewish life,” he said.

HUC-JIR’s board of governors voted unanimously for Ellenson, 54, who was ordained by HUC in 1977 and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. The Reform seminary, which has campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles, trains rabbis, cantors, educators, communal professionals and academics.

For weeks now, it was known that Ellenson was one of two leading candidates for the post, along with legal activist Uri Regev, a leader of the Reform movement in Israel. Regev was the first Israeli-born rabbi to be ordained at HUC’s Jerusalem campus. An attorney, he is a passionate spokesman for religious freedom in Israel and a prodigious fundraiser for the movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“Uri is an activist and a hero of the Jewish people,” Ellenson told me. Regev also happens to be Ellenson’s best friend.

In choosing Ellenson, the seminary leaders reached for an academic of sterling credentials and a teacher of depth and vision.

Ellenson was appointed following the very public resignation of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who stepped down from the HUC-JIR presidency last year after the Reform rabbinical association suspended him for undisclosed sexual improprieties.

At 1.5 million members, Reform Jews comprise America’s largest synagogue movement. It has also been a movement in transition, looking to incorporate more traditional approaches to ritual observance but also breaking ground in outreach to intermarried couples and gays and lesbians.

In light of this, Ellenson seems an inspired choice. His scholarship and practice — his very being — cut across denominational lines. A professor of Jewish religious thought at the Reform movement’s seminary, he grew up Orthodox in Newport News, Va., and attends services at the Conservative Temple Beth Am as well as at Reform synagogues Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Emanuel; he teaches at Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, as well as at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

He is the author of several acclaimed books that illuminate the development of Jewish denominations, including seminal works on Orthodoxy. He is currently co- authoring, with Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a book tentatively titled “For the Sake of Heaven: Conversion, Identity and the Politics of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy.” Ellenson has lectured at Bar Ilan University in Israel, as well as at Harvard and Yale.

Now, of course, his job description is altered. “Life will change radically,” he said. Along with devoting himself to administration and development of an enterprise with an estimated $20 million annual budget, Ellenson will shape the next generations of Reform rabbis.

Needless to say, he envisions a Jewish future whose denominational lines are more permeable. “The question,” he said, “is how do we regenerate Judaism and make it vital for individuals who are indifferent to it, yet continue to foster people who are engaged in the ongoing Jewish renaissance?” Though committed to Reform’s philosophy, he has the breadth and experience to undertake the kind of cross-pollination that a new generation of Jews sees as its prerogative.

What makes this selection even sweeter is Ellenson’s attachment to Los Angeles. Ellenson’s wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, is chaplain at the Harvard-Westlake School. Their children Ruth, Micha, Hannah, Naomi and Raphael are the products of L.A. Jewish life (Ruth is also a contributing writer to The Journal).

Ellenson said the selection committee did not make moving to New York or Cincinnati a condition of his tenure, and the family will decide on whether to stay or move sometime next year.

In fact, Ellenson is the second local HUC professor to be elevated to the top post. Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, who taught in Los Angeles from 1958-1971, preceded Zimmerman in the presidency. “It’s one thing to come from L.A.; it’s another thing to be able to remain in L.A.,” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, former president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “This says a great deal about L.A. and the quality of the professors here.”

Without reading too much into the choice, it’s fair to say it shifts more attention to the vitality of this community. “The fact is,” Ellenson said, “L.A. is a Jewish cultural center.” Would his selection reaffirm that? “I don’t see how it would hurt it,” he said.

Ellenson was at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport last Monday evening, getting ready to board a flight home, when he received a call from selection committee member Fred Lane. Lane told him to return immediately to the O’Hare Airport Hilton where the group had been meeting. Once there, Ellenson was informed that the post was his.

His initial reaction? “I thought it’s a sacred task that’s been imposed. Hopefully it will be a way for me to do good for Am Yisrael.”