Rabbi David Ellenson

After Rabbi David Ellenson retired as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in December 2013, after more than a decade at the helm, he returned to the classroom.

In addition to his new title of chancellor emeritus of HUC-JIR, he is a distinguished visiting professor teaching two classes at New York University this semester: an Introduction to Judaism course and a graduate course on Jewish law. He is also teaching an Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought class at Hebrew Union College and will be teaching two classes at Brandeis University in the fall, also as a distinguished visiting professor.

“I really love being back in the classroom,” Ellenson says. “It’s been really great, great fun.”

This month, Ellenson will visit the congregation of one of his former students, Rabbi Stephen Kahn, for a scholar-in-residence weekend at Congregation Beth Israel, Feb. 20-22.

“It’s very special to be able to have that opportunity to not only teach members of the congregation where he now serves but to have the opportunity also to see him in this capacity,” Ellenson says. “I receive a great deal of nachas from seeing the accomplishments of these students.” Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai is another one of his former students.

During his scholar-in-residence weekend at Beth Israel, his Friday night lecture will be “Oh My, How We’ve Changed! Two Types of Reform: What the Past Has to Teach Us About Our Future.” During this session, he will discuss two prayer books written in the 19th century, one by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Hebrew Union College and the Union for Reform Judaism, and the other by Rabbi David Einhorn, another leader in the Reform movement. The two were rivals for the allegiances of many Jews in North America, Ellenson says, and “each of them represents different kinds of approaches to Judaism.” Wise was more moderate and Einhorn was more sectarian and denominational and “I think that each of them has something to teach us about what the nature of Judaism can or should be in our day.”

On Saturday morning, Ellenson will lead an 8:45 a.m. Torah study session  and that evening will lead a discussion about the future of Reform Judaism with alumni of CBI’s leadership development courses. On Sunday, he’ll meet with teens from CBI and Temple Chai about Jewish arguments and the legend of Yavneh. “It really embodies the notion of the resilience and the adaptability of the Jewish people to the most trying circumstances,” Ellenson says.

Ellenson was ordained at the HUC-JIR New York campus in 1977 and was appointed to the faculty at the Los Angeles campus in 1979. He served as president of the seminary of the Reform movement from 2001 to 2013.

“During the time that I was president, it was a time of great trials in many ways and quite clearly there have been a number of significant changes that have emerged,” Ellenson says. “Clearly the demographics of American Judaism in general and the Reform movement in particular have changed.” He noted that the changes include an increase in intermarried Jewish families, a difference in attitudes toward Israel and a community that’s less denominationally oriented than had been true before. 

“All of these changes are significant ones,” he says. One major challenge the seminary had during his years as president was “to be able to readapt, to work with our educational system and curriculum so as to prepare our rabbis to serve this community where these changes were made.”

Ellenson has also authored many books; his most recent one is “Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice,” which was published in November 2014.

Reflecting on his years at the seminary, he says he was proud that the school was able to maintain its Israel program and all four campuses – Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York –  and that the endowment of the college increased to more than $200 million during the years he was president. 

“But what I’m most proud of are our students.”


What: Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D.
What: “Oh My, How We’ve Changed! Two Types of Reform: What the Past has to Teach Us About Our Future”
When: 6:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20
Where: Congregation Beth Israel, 10460 N. 56th St., Scottsdale
Cost: Free
Tickets: cbiaz.org/programs/adult-learning/classes

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