February 22, 2020

A Tough Farewell

It’s hard to know who will suffer the greater wrench this summer: Rabbis Jackie and David Ellenson, as they leave Los Angeles, or Jewish Los Angeles for losing them.

A year after being named president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), David Ellenson is moving his family to Manhattan, a base of operations more central to the college’s four campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He’s been on the road almost constantly since last June.

"It’s been a very busy year, a very exciting year," Jackie Ellenson told The Journal, adding that her travel schedule went way up as well. "We had a really good time with it, but it’s been a big adjustment."

Both Ellensons have spent the bulk of their professional lives in Los Angeles, David from 1979 as a professor at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, Jackie since her marriage to David 20 years ago.

In leaving Los Angeles, Jackie Ellenson is leaving a long-term educational post of her own: chaplain at Harvard-Westlake School, one of the city’s top prep schools.

Ellenson has been with the school since 1991, the year the all-male Harvard School in Studio City and the Westlake School for Girls in Bel Air merged. At the beginning of her tenure, the school positioned her to do outreach to Jewish students — although the school is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, the student body is about 40 percent Jewish — and she did a lot of work with community service projects.

More recently, she’s been teaching a seminar in "human development" to eighth- and 10th-grade students, discussing practical issues of moral decision-making: aspects of friendship, trust and betrayal; drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual harassment.

"Just like they’ll practice their sport before a game, they need to discuss these issues before they have to deal with them," Ellenson said. "We can’t prevent bad decisions, but we can certainly try to head them off." She also speaks at school assemblies and participates in school responses to tragedies, such as the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Ellenson sponsors a weekly Jewish Awareness Club at both the lower- and upper-school campuses. Attendance is modest, about eight to 18 students at a time, but regular. "For those kids, it’s part of their schedules, something they do, you should excuse the expression, religiously," Ellenson said.

And she does a lot of counseling. "Because I do such a wide range of things, and because I have kind of a public presence in the school, kids know I’m here," Ellenson said. "My door is always open, and I have a lot of office time. Very often kids just kind of pop in."

Not all the kids who seek her out or who are referred to her are Jewish — nor are all the kids who come to the Jewish Awareness Club. "The nice thing about the work that I do here is, although I’m a rabbi, I’ve been able to transcend that role," she said.

The school will miss her. "Jackie was, throughout her time at Harvard-Westlake, a force for good in our community as rabbi, teacher, counselor, colleague and friend," headmaster Thomas Hudnut told The Journal. "She has been an inspiration to us all."

Moving from the Westside to the Upper West Side will be a homecoming for Ellenson, 46, who grew up in Manhattan and attended Barnard College.

Parent to five children, four of whom are moving to New York with the couple, Ellenson isn’t planning to look for work immediately in New York. "I’ll have enough of a job just to get organized and getting our kids assimilated," she said.

"The neat thing about taking a break is it gives me the opportunity to figure out what I want to do next." She said she may eventually pursue a certificate in counseling or go into hospital chaplaincy work.

When Temple Beth Am honors the Ellensons next Thursday night, expect heavy use of Kleenex. "We have so loved being here; it’s going to be very difficult to go," Ellenson said.

But she seems to relish the prospect of being a "professional spouse." "As a rabbi, I can be a different kind of professional spouse," she said. "I don’t think I’m going to be like Hillary Clinton, but I do think I have a role to play."

For information about the Temple Beth Am tribute to Jackie and David Ellenson, call (310) 652-7354, ext. 223.