March 20, 2019

Rabbi David Ellenson: Bringing heart and old-school soul to academia

An Orthodox upbringing, no fundraising experience, and, by all accounts, a tendency to virtually inhabit the lives of 19th century Jewish philosophers, Rabbi David Ellenson was not who you might have expected to become president of a major institution of Jewish higher learning like the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

But in 2001, Ellenson was indeed selected to lead the Reform seminary, with its campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem.

“He was not a numbers-cruncher,” Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR, said of Ellenson, who officially stepped down from his post as president to become chancellor on Jan. 1 and will be celebrated in Los Angeles in a gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Feb. 9. “Everything was built around his warm, friendly style,” Windmueller said.

“He’s a great schmoozer. He can talk to people about anything,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who attended rabbinic school with Ellenson and remains a close personal friend.

“I like people very much,” admitted Ellenson, who said he operates in a nonhierarchical way and that his relationships with people “always remain of primary import.”

Born in Brookline, Mass., in 1947, David Ellenson grew up in Newport News, Va., where, according to Windmueller, he saw firsthand the “sense of commitment” of the Jewish professionals at the local JCC.

In 1969, Ellenson received his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary; he was ordained at HUC-JIR and received his doctorate from Columbia University. Fox recalls that as a student at HUC-JIR, Ellenson didn’t necessarily need to prepare. “The rest of us are breaking our teeth, and he could breeze on in,” Fox said.

[Rabbi Ellenson's daughter: He's Abba to me]

A member of HUC-JIR’s faculty since 1979, Ellenson worked his way up from lecturer to becoming a professor of Jewish religious thought. From 1981-97, he was also the director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the L.A. campus.

With four campuses in three time zones, Ellenson’s term was a peripatetic one. “I was on the road 150 to 200 days a year during my service as president,” said Ellenson. 

To digitally unite the four campuses, beginning around 2010, Ellenson found funding to create a system of “electronic classrooms,” where “students and teachers on all our campuses can be together,” he said.

During his tenure, however, keeping the four-campus system standing — whether with mortar or circuit boards — was not always easy.

The financial crisis of 2008-9, according to Ellenson, saw HUC-JIR facing a $10 million deficit out of a budget of $38 million. As reported in the Los Angeles Times in a letter Ellenson sent to the college community, he warned that the institution was in “the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history — even more so than during the Depression.”

“We were considering the closing of a campus, perhaps even two,” he said.

The deliberations over which campus, or campuses, to close were complex, and the fact that Ellenson had lived and worked in Los Angeles for 23 years did not make matters easier.

“My two oldest children went to USC, and our children attended Pressman Academy, Emmanuel Community Day School and Sinai Akiba,” he said. While living in Los Angeles, he also attended the Reform Leo Beck Temple, as well as the Conservative Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan.

With letters and e-mails pouring in — Windmueller estimates there may have been as many as 10,000, each making a case against the closing of their own campus — the pressure for a decision grew. “They struggled with 25 scenarios,” said Windmueller, who served as dean of the Los Angeles campus during that period. “He knew he needed to make cuts. But he refused to sacrifice his relationships for policy.”

Ellenson and HUC-JIR’s board of governors soon sought other remedies, creating “significant economies [in] how we were going to administer the school,” including selling properties that were no long needed and “engaging in vigorous fundraising,” he said.

“The college today has a completely balanced budget,” Ellenson said with some pride. “In 2009, our endowment was $82 million, and it is over $200 million today.”

“I had never engaged in fundraising or administration in any significant way prior to being president,” said Ellenson, who related that a good day would be when someone called call and told him they “were about to contribute a seven-figure gift.”

Windmueller said Ellenson’s longtime relationships were essential to saving the school. He “had all these relationships, and he was able to turn them into valuable resources.”

Now the school is not only on solid ground, but is also growing to ordain progressive rabbis within Israel. “Our Jerusalem program has expanded, and we will soon be approaching more than 100 Israeli Reform Rabbis,” Ellenson said. 

Also during his tenure, more women have been added to the faculty. When he started, only seven of the 55 members of the board of governors were women; that number has now reached almost at 40 percent, Ellenson said.

As to why the school, unlike other parochial colleges, has no sports teams, Ellenson responded, more than half-jokingly, that it has been his “great disappointment,” and that as a precondition for an agreement of cooperation with nearby NCAA powerhouse Xavier University in Cincinnati, he’d had to promise that HUC-JIR would never field a basketball team.

As the college’s new chancellor, Ellenson will be able to return to the classroom, where previously he had introduced new generations of students to Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn and Franz Rosenzweig. “There are certain Jewish figures who live inside of David,” Windmueller said of Ellenson.

In the 1980s, Rabbi Steven Silver, now of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, was a student of Ellenson’s in the college’s rabbinic program on the L.A. campus.

“Rabbi Ellenson was talking about Rabbi Leo Baeck,” said Silver, speaking of the German scholar and community leader who in 1943 was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. As Ellenson told the story, he became “emotionally moved,” Silver recalled.

“When he talked about how Baeck was given the job of draining the camp latrines, his lips began to quiver,” Silver said. By the end of the story — Baeck survived — “Ellenson was weeping, as well as the rest of the class,” Silver said.

“I learned that intellectual history is not just about ideas, but the triumph of the Jewish spirit — in dark and painful times,” said Silver.

“This is not his job,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said of her longtime friend. “It’s his heart and soul.”