A L’Dor v’Dor ordination

At Lag b’Omer, a holiday traditionally observed with bonfires, Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), set off a few sparks of its own. 

At graduation and ordination ceremonies held at University Synagogue in Los Angeles and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, generational torches were passed, and a call went out for new fires to be lit.

Two of the college’s leaders, Rabbi Richard Levy, who received a Certificate of Recognition and was the ordination speaker, and Steven Windmueller, who received a doctorate in Humane Letters, honoris causa, each had recently announced retirements, and two of the newly ordained rabbis from a class of 13, Yonaton (Yoni) Regev and Micah Ellenson, became the next generation in their respective families to enter the life of rabbinics. 

“You who are being ordained — delight! You who have worked and sacrificed and prayed that they might be ordained — rejoice!” Levy said as he began his address to the incoming rabbis. 

For Ellenson, in particular, there was a group of teachers joining in the rejoicing. “My dad and stepmom are rabbis,” said Ellenson whose mother, Lynn Hanson, is a retired middle- and high-school teacher.  

At the ceremony, creating the sense of a torch-passing, Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, Micah’s stepmother, presented him, while his father, Rabbi David Ellenson, who recently retired as president of HUC-JIR, ordained him.

For Ellenson, the path to this day was not a direct one. 

“I did not know I always wanted to be a rabbi,” Ellenson said. However, he was quick to point out that rabbinics “is not a second career. This is a continuation of my career path,” he said. 

After college, he worked at Nickelodeon in film and education, but eventually realized that he was looking for something else. He enrolled in graduate school at what was then the University of Judaism (Now American Jewish University) and graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree in education, then started in the rabbinic program.  

Although he grew up attending the Conservative Temple Beth Am, he gradually realized that he “felt a closer kinship to Reform Judaism” and switched to HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program, said Ellenson, who will become director of congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch-Sinai in Seattle. 

“To be a teacher is first and foremost. … [Being] a rabbi allows me to teach,” said Ellenson, who for 12 years, including his rabbinic internship, was a youth director at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It was also there that he met his wife, Sara Ellenson. 

As far as acclimating himself to Seattle, Ellenson said he can adapt to the Seahawks “without any dissonance,” despite being a lifelong Dodgers and Lakers fan. 

Also ordained was Yoni Regev, another older student who represented a passing down of Torah sparks.  

Regev, who was born in Jerusalem, is the son of Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and lawyer who formerly was director of the Reform movement’s political voice in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center. “He was never a congregational rabbi,” said the younger Regev, who will be assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland.

Like Ellenson, being a rabbi was not the younger Regev’s first calling. 

Originally interested in pursuing a career in singing, Regev studied music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He has a wonderful singing voice,” said Ellenson, who has been a friend of Regev’s since before rabbinical school. 

“I thought I was going to cantorial school,” said Regev, who decided instead that “the rabbinic track was the right direction. I could be a singing rabbi,” he said.

“I grew up in a world where rabbinic work was a reality of life … values in Judaism were expressed in real-life terms,” said Regev, whose father has been engaged with advancing civil and religious rights for Jews in Israel and monitoring human rights in the occupied territories.

Regev felt that becoming a congregational rabbi would allow him to express and teach many of Judaism’s’ “important values” at the grass-roots level. “It’s where the real questions happen,” he said.

“Our fathers are very close friends,” Regev said. David Ellenson, “signed our ketubah as one of our witnesses,” added Regev, who is married to Lara Pullan Regev, an HUC-JIR rabbinic student who will be ordained next year.

Having lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, Regev believes he can “speak to the realities of the Israeli experience” and “is open to dialogue on the role of Israel in American Jewish life.”

According to Windmueller, who is retiring from his faculty position at HUC-JIR, such openness will be what is called for in the future environment of organized Judaism.

A former dean of the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus and former director of HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Communal Service, he has written and lectured extensively on the changes in the American-Jewish community. He has written that the Jewish community is currently in the midst of the “third American Jewish Revolution,” where institutional life has been “moving from the parochial to the global.”

 In an interview, he urged the new rabbis to “look beyond your borders,” have a “willingness to experiment with alternative ventures” and to “go outside the Jewish community” to look at “nonprofits and business for new tools.”

Levy, who began his career in Los Angeles as an assistant rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and became director of UCLA Hillel in 1968, has observed recent changes as well.

Levy knew from the age of 13 that he wanted to be a rabbi, and he eventually rose to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the HUC’s Los Angeles campus. “Lay people have wanted to deepen their own spiritual lives, and we need to help them do that,” he said.

After retiring as the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth, and lecturer on Judaic studies, Levy plans to continue teaching and davening with the students on the HUC-JIR campus.

At the ordination, speaking with passion, Levy sought to fire up the class of new rabbis: “Be bold. Act with humility — but act boldly.  Love boldly,” he said. “Do God’s commands boldly. Do justice boldly. And if you do, if you speak the beautiful words God has taught us out of love, and if you act with courage and sensitivity and conviction, you will lead this people and this movement into the Promised Land,” he said.

“Enjoy this day, rabbanei segulah, precious rabbis—and may God light a bonfire in each one of your hearts,” he said.

Rabbi Richard Levy: Los Angeles Ordination Speaker 5774/2014 from HUC-JIR on Vimeo.

Renewal seeks consistency in its rabbinical training

Karyn Berger, a slight, dark-haired woman wearing a royal blue tallit, steps up to the microphone to introduce herself and her four colleagues. All are about to be ordained as Jewish Renewal spiritual leaders — two rabbis, two rabbinic pastors and one cantor.

“We were born in Austria, Budapest, the Bronx, Toronto and Oklahoma,” she begins. “We grew up atheist, Reform kosher, socialist-Zionist. Two of us went to Orthodox yeshivas. Our average age is 49, and collectively we’ve been married for 75 years.”

When the laughter dies down, Berger continues more seriously.
“All five of us got our call to serve, and here we are,” she said. “Our calling is to heal souls — the souls of the Jewish people.”

The candidates’ teachers and mentors are then called up to stand behind their former students, who literally lean back into the arms of those who taught them, receiving ordination via hands-on transmission.

This very personal, emotion-filled ceremony on Jan. 7 — the highlight of the annual Ohalah Convention, the professional association of Renewal rabbis — is in keeping with the mission of Jewish Renewal.

It’s an egalitarian, neo-Chasidic Jewish practice that is reaching for greater internal consistency and standardization of its rabbinic training.

Often derided or acclaimed as “New Age Judaism,” Renewal focuses on environmentalism and direct spiritual connection to the Divine. It’s part of the burgeoning world of transdenominational Judaism — the growing number of synagogues, rabbis and prayer groups that eschew affiliation with a Jewish stream.

Renewal is “not a denomination” but an attempt to revitalize Jewish practice by emphasizing its spiritual depths, said Rabbi Marcia Prager, dean of the rabbinic program for Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The approach was developed four decades ago by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who is still the movement’s spiritual head.

Renewal today claims 40 affiliated congregations. Since 1974, 112 Renewal spiritual leaders have been ordained — 98 rabbis, three cantors and 11 rabbinic pastors. Sixty are graduates of the Aleph rabbinic program, created in the late 1990s to bring greater consistency to the course of study and relieve the pressure on Schachter-Shalomi, who had been personally overseeing each student’s progress.

The Aleph program differs from other seminaries in that it is completely off site. Each student has an individualized program developed and overseen by a mentoring committee. That can include classes at other seminaries, synagogues and universities, independent reading and traditional hevruta, or Torah study in pairs, as well as teleconference courses led by Aleph teachers.

In addition to Hebrew, Jewish text, history and philosophy and professional development courses, Renewal students study Chasidic literature and philosophy, meditation and prayer. They are each assigned a mashpia, or mentor, who guides their personal religious journey. The mashpia system is a staple in the Chasidic world.

Whereas other seminaries have carefully structured five-year rabbinic programs — six if a preparatory year is required — an Aleph course can take from two to 10 years or more. Few students are full time. Most are older and cannot leave family and career behind to attend a traditional seminary.

Daniel Siegel, the first Renewal rabbi ordained by Schachter-Shalomi in 1974 and now an Aleph teacher, said each seminary has its strengths. Aleph’s focus is pastoral care.

“We’re trying to train people who are drawn to the service of other people,” he said.

Leaders of other seminaries raise concerns about Aleph, not for the quality or sincerity of its students or faculty, but for its lack of standardization.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, noted that Aleph has not sought accreditation, and he questioned its reliance on distance learning.

“Our program is five or six years for a reason,” Ehrenkrantz said. “We want people to have certain socialization experiences that are crucial in the development of a rabbinic identity.”

In fact, when prospective students approach Aleph, if their goal is to become a pulpit rabbi, they are encouraged to enter another seminary to increase their job opportunities. Many have done so, ending up with double ordination.

Rabbi Alicia Magal was already well along in her Aleph studies when she decided to seek concurrent ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion, a nondenominational seminary founded in New York in 1956. A Los Angeles branch was established in 2000, but two years later, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, now located at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, separated from New York, although the academies maintain common philosophies on pluralism and spirituality.

Magal said she missed “rubbing elbows with other students.”

Part of the lack of standardization is intentional.

“The key to Renewal is autonomy,” Schachter-Shalomi told the Ohalah gathering. “We bring heart to the situation. We bring compassion.”

But it’s also something Aleph’s leadership is working hard to change. The establishment of the school in 1995 was itself an attempt to bring greater consistency to the preparation of Renewal rabbis, a process that continues. There’s an extensive application process, course work is continually evaluated and two years ago a stable curriculum was created with courses that rotate.

The creation of Ohalah was a second step in the same direction, said Aleph board member Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, immediate past president of Ohalah.

“In the early days, a person who was ordained was out on their own,” she said. “Now we have Ohalah to provide things rabbis need as they move forward in their profession.”

But she acknowledged that Renewal is still fighting for acceptance. That’s nothing new. When Reconstructionism emerged in the early 20th century, the other denominations looked askance.

“Then Renewal came around, and Reconstructionism became part of the establishment,” Baugh said.

One day, Renewal, too, could be supplanted. But for now, she admitted, “we have that chip on our shoulder that comes from being the new kid on the block.”

Ziegler’s Elite Eight

Three bouncers, two lawyers and a musician among them, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies class of 2002 brings a new leadership to the Conservative movement this week with the ordination of eight rabbis. From backgrounds as different as the paths on which they are about to embark, together Mark Ankcorn, Micah Caplan, Andrea Haney, Daniel Greyber, Baruch HaLevi, Barry Leff, Eric Rosin and Ranon Teller received ordination on Monday, May 17.

“I’m so proud to be connected to such a diverse and dynamic group of talented leaders,” said Ziegler School Dean Rabbi Bradley Artson, who presented the charge during Monday night’s ordination ceremony.

This is the Ziegler school’s fourth ordination class. Founded in 1995, as the first independent ordaining institution on the West Coast, the school has ordained 38 rabbis (including the class of 2002) and expects student enrollment to hit 70 in fall 2003.

The members of this atypical rabbinical class were not always on a spiritual path. “Only one of us knew we wanted to be a rabbi at age 14,” said Anckorn, a college football player who went on to attend law school. “The rest of us realized much later on that we were searching for something deeper in life,” added the former Orange County deputy district attorney, whose Ziegler classmates included a writer, a world-class swimmer turned ad exec and the president of a telecommunications manufacturing firm.

Though the ordinates’ religious explorations had very different beginnings, their journeys all culminated with the Ziegler School ceremony. The night opened with the Zimryah Chorale’s stirring processional and the acceptance of the Simon Greenberg Award by Rabbi David Lieber, the University of Judaism’s president emeritus.

The ordinates, each sponsored by a chosen faculty member, ascended one at a time to the Sinai Temple bimah. The mentors spoke of their student’s accomplishments and highlighted the unique gift each apprentice will bring to the rabbinate: A sense of justice, a quiet tenderness, unwavering courage, the ability to listen — each ordinate possessed a strength as distinct as his or her past.

But what was once a group of dissimilar individuals stood before Monday night’s beit din as a cohesive and tight-knit unit. All donning the same wine-trimmed talit, the class hugged and cried and celebrated their shared success. “We’ve spent every waking minute together for five years. We shared all the life-cycles: weddings, births, a year in Israel,” said HaLevi, who presented the evening’s shi’ur. “When you spend more time with your classmates than with your wife, you form incredibly special friendships,” he added, noting that his shi’ur was a collective effort, shaped and composed by all eight members of the graduating class.

More than 700 friends, faculty and family members filled the sanctuary, and yet it was the classmates who applauded loudest and beamed proudest for one another. “We each struggled at points, wrestling with a sense of ambivalence, frustration or just sheer exhaustion. But at every stage, it was our classmates, our friends, who got us through,” Anckorn said.

The eight ordinates leave Ziegler on as divergent paths as they arrived. Some of the students have chosen to lead congregations — in British Columbia, Richmond, Va., Arcadia, Calif., St. Louis and Des Moines, Iowa. Haney will make aliyah and continue her education in Jerusalem, Greyber begins a career as director of Camp Ramah in Ojai and Anckorn will return to a full-time law career.

In these tensioned-filled times, Artson sees the ordinates and the unique contributions each will make to the Jewish community as invaluable. “When I look at this row of new rabbis, I see a chain going back to Moses,” he said. “I see a response to our enemy that we will renew ourselves no matter what, and in many different ways.”