HUC chancellor remembers southern boyhood

HUC chancellor remembers southern boyhood

Rabbi David Ellenson talks about growing up in the South, social justice, the Pew study, and more at Teaneck's Temple Emeth

Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson’s trip through the Jewish world has been long and strange, beginning in the Orthodox world of Newport News, Virginia; winding through the colonial (for real!) elegance, symmetry, and beauty of the College of William and Mary and the manufactured chaos and real emotion at the Democratic National Convention of 1964, to the presidency of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Now, as HUC’s chancellor, Rabbi Ellenson is looking beyond it to the world of opportunity not-quite-retirement offers.

Rabbi Ellenson will talk about the insights he’s gained over the course of this busy life as he comes to Temple Emeth in Teaneck as the Rabbi Louis J. Sigel scholar in residence from March 13 to March 15.

Rabbi David Ellenson

His views on race relations in the South were shaped by his boyhood there. Rabbi Ellenson, who was born in 1947, grew up in a small but still four-shul town, where”“ davening options included Reform, Conservative, Orthodox-with-mixed-seating (not called Conservadox then and there, he said), and orthodox Orthodox, with a mechitza. The Ellensons belonged to that last shul.

“My family was very traditional Jewishly, but also involved in politics on the Virginia peninsula,” Rabbi Ellenson said. It therefore was logical that he began as a page in the Virginia State Senate, and then at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

That Democratic convention, held in Atlantic City, probably has faded a bit in the memories of the vast majority of us, who were not there. In the public memory, it is shaded by the nation-shaking theatrics of the 1968 convention in Chicago. But Rabbi Ellenson, then a teenager, was in Atlantic City, and that convention has shaped his life.

“When President Johnson” – Lyndon Johnson, who had taken over the presidency from the assassinated John F. Kennedy the year before, was nominated to run for his own full term there – “and Adlai Stevenson” – the country’s United Nations ambassador, a failed presidential candidate who introduced a film in memory of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had died recently – “spoke, there was lots of music,” Rabbi Ellenson said. “There was a lot of noise, and clearly to some degree it was manufactured.

“But when Bobby Kennedy” – who was attorney general then – “came up to introduce the film about his brother, at a certain point the fanfare stopped, but the applause grew louder and louder. I still think of Senator Kennedy – he wasn’t a senator yet then – with tears in his eyes.

“It was an extremely powerful moment, one of the most significant moments of my life. Even when I talk about it right now, I am going back to it. It was almost surreal.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his background, Rabbi Ellenson had assumed that he’d become a lawyer, “but in college I took a course in contemporary Christian thought. I found it compelling, and I wondered if Judaism had an equivalent. And those years were among the most significant decades in American history for social justice, and it had been driven by theology – Reinhold Niebuhr, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I went to the University of Virginia and did a master’s degree in religious studies, and then I went to Israel and lived there for two years, and I entered HUC.” He started his rabbinical studies at the school’s Jerusalem campus. Next, he moved to New York, where he was ordained. At the same time, he earned a doctorate in the sociology of religions at Columbia University. “I did a study of Rabbi Oswald Esriel Hildesheimer, who started the equivalent of Yeshiva University in Germany,” Rabbi Ellenson said. That work was published as a book; the rabbi’s name was the title and the subtitle was “Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy.”

One of Rabbi Ellenson’s teachers at Columbia was Arthur Hertzberg, the Conservative rabbi who headed Temple Emanu-El, then in Englewood, for many years. “He was my professor in Jewish intellectual history,” Rabbi Ellenson said of Rabbi Hertzberg. “He was irascible and brilliant. I don’t think I enjoyed anything more than sitting in his class and listening to him talk. His knowledge was prodigious, and his intellect matched his knowledge. I am smiling now, as I talk about him.

“He did not suffer fools – he was always certain of his position – but the reality is that he put together Jewish thought in a brilliant way.”

Not only did Rabbi Hertzberg teach Rabbi Ellenson specifics about Jewish thought, he taught him a way of approaching his work. “He said, and I never forgot, that if you cannot explain what your thesis is in a sentence, or at most in a paragraph of three sentences, then you don’t really have a grip on your subject.” On the other hand, once you have established your thesis, “you can keep on writing page after page or speaking for hours…

“I tried to emulate him in my own teaching style and career,” he said.

Rabbi Ellenson’s field of study is “the evolution of Judaism in the modern period,” he said. “My specialty is Orthodox rabbinic writings; I also write on liberal prayer books and theology.”

On Friday and Saturday, Rabbi Ellenson will talk about various minorities – African Americans in this country, Arabs in Israel. On Sunday, he’ll tackle the Pew study.

Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Stephen Sirbu is enthusiastic about Rabbi Ellenson, with whom he studied in rabbinical school.

“Rabbi Ellenson has been a mentor to me since my undergraduate days at UCLA, where he was a professor of Jewish studies while also teaching at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “His unique blend of intelligence and warmth has inspired countless students at every stage of his career.

“As president of HUC-JIR for over a decade, Rabbi Ellenson has overseen the training of a generation of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators and other Jewish professionals. He is deeply committed to the future of Reform Judaism in North America, and I believe his insights on where American Judaism is headed will be of interest to Jews of all perspectives.

“While Rabbi Ellenson has spent his career as an academic, he understands Judaism’s real-world implications and embraces Reform Judaism’s emphasis on social justice. His gifts as a teacher and a Jewish role model will be evident at each of his presentations during Temple Emeth’s scholar-in-residence weekend.”

Rabbi Ellenson has used the insights he has garnered over his career as he considers the Pew study. “I think the study does indicate that denominations, particularly the liberal ones, are not likely to be as strong as they were in the 20th century,” he said. “Liberal Jews now reflect a great deal of permeability, and, significantly, a large intermarried population and also a large population of unaffiliated people. Having said that, though, people still desire a sense of community and belonging. So the challenge to the Jewish community will be how to provide for those ongoing needs outside the traditional frameworks that have marked Jewish life in this country in the 20th century.”

Despite the challenges, Rabbi Ellenson is sanguine about the Jewish future. “People make dire predictions, but Jewish history testifies that we have proven to be resilient.

“In 1964, Look magazine predicted the death of the American Jew. I know that we’re still here – but I don’t know where Look is.”

Who: Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

What: Will be Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Louis J. Sigel scholar in residence

When: March 13 to March 15

Where: 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck

How: Friday night, “A Southern Jewish Boyhood: Reflections on Race Relations in America,” after services at 8; Saturday morning, “The Obligations of the Israeli Government Toward its Arab Population” at Torah study at 9; “Just War and Self-Defense in Jewish Tradition” at 1 p.m.; Sunday morning, a discussion on the Pew study at 10.

For more information and reservations for Shabbat lunch and Sunday breakfast: 201-833-1322 or

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