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Jewish Journal

Judaism as Transformation

by Julie G Fax

June 14, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Dr. David Ellenson, a Virginia-bred rabbi who has spent the past 23 years in Los Angeles as a teacher and a communal participant, took some time last week to talk with The Jewish Journal about what his recent appointment to the presidency of Hebrew Union College (HUC) will mean for American Judaism -- and for him, his wife, Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, and their five children, ranging in age from 6 to 28.

Jewish Journal: This is a time of great change and development for the Reform movement. How do you hope to guide your students in understanding and internalizing the Reform movement's mission?

David Ellenson: I think that this is not just a great moment of transition for the Reform movement, it's really a great moment of transition for all of American Judaism.... The real challenge is, how do we train rabbis and educators to respond to a Jewish world where old denonminational boundaries are more permeable than before?

So the real task in training rabbis and other Jewish professionals is to have them make Jewish tradition speak to and be a vital element of a population that by and large is secular.

JJ:Do you have an approach for meeting that challenge?

DE: What we need to begin to do is train rabbis, educators and cantors, as well as other professionals, to see the institutions in which they work as institutions of transformation. They need to be actively involved in outreach and have to understand themselves as change agents and as validating a meaningful Judaism for the people who, in fact, come into their doors.

In the end, I think Judaism remains an interpretive tradition based on the text and heritage of our people. I view Judaism as a chain novel, a conversation. We need to train our students to understand that they are a link in this chain in the Jewish tradition, and they need to add their voices, as the previous generations have added their voices, in view of the needs of the contemporary moment.

JJ:With your academic work, your personal worship and your rabbinic life, you seem to have a foot in every denomination of Judaism. Will you try to use that in some way to bridge the gap between the movements of Judaism?

DE: I view myself as an individual who takes a liberal approach to Judaism. Simultaneously, I am opposed to what some people might call an adjectival Judaism, where the descriptor -- Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist -- is more significant than the noun -- Judaism. I quite actively correspond with a number of Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform colleagues, and I would hope in this sense that on a substantive and symbolic level, the decision to honor me by selecting me as president makes a statement that we in the Reform movement see ourselves as part of the totality of the Jewish people.... All the movements and all the leaders in their own way are attempting to chart a course for Judaism that they feel is true to authentic Judaism, that is, a response that views the tradition in light of the needs of the modern moment. Even if we disagree on what that should be, we can at least emphasize those approaches that unite us and acknowledge the sincerity and good will that drive concerned persons in each of the movements of the Jewish world.

JJ:Will you be bringing a particular West Coast sensibility to the office?

DE: I do think one thing that is true on the West Coast is, people are often much more open to experimentation, and the types of lines that I think are probably more strictly drawn on the East Coast are not necessarily as characteristic of Judaism on the West Coast. Having said that, I don't know if I would attribute all of my sensibilities to Los Angeles. I've lived in L.A. 23 years; I had a Virginia boyhood and spent many years of my education in New York.

JJ: What are your long-term goals for HUC?

DE: My long-term goals are to continue in some of the directions that were undertaken by Rabbi [Sheldon] Zimmerman -- increase recruitment of students, add positions to the various campuses and schools and strengthen a sense of intellectual vitality and religious élan that already marks our institution. We have added 16 new faculty members over the last five years, all of them incredibly talented, both as teachers and academics....

I would like our school to become a real intellectual center of Jewish life, and I would hope that, in this sense, HUC as well as the other seminaries could recapture some of the centrality they enjoyed prior to the explosion of Jewish studies programs at major universities.

My own fantasy would be to create something like an institute for advanced studies at HUC, where we would bring in leading intellectual and academic practitioners from all over the Jewish world and use their knowledge and expertise in applied ways to confront issues in our Jewish life.

JJ: Will you still be teaching in Los Angeles?

DE: That is, unfortunately, something I am not going to be able to do. The demands of traveling make it impossible for me to do that.

JJ: What do you see as your greatest challenge?

DE: To help persuade American Jewry that they need to contribute the support necessary for us to flourish as an institution, so as to provide the intellectual learning and spiritual vitality that American Judaism and synagogues are going to require if Judaism is going to be vital in the 21st century.

That's a nice way of saying fundraising, but it isn't really just fundraising. It is explaining the role than an institution such as ours as part of the ongoing life of the Jewish people. If I can explain it in a cogent and persuasive way, I'm sure this generation will respond to that message.

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