At Lag b’Omer, a holiday traditionally observed with bonfires, Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), set off a few sparks of its own.
At graduation and ordination ceremonies held at University Synagogue in Los Angeles and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, generational torches were passed, and a call went out for new fires to be lit.
Two of the college’s leaders, Rabbi Richard Levy, who received a Certificate of Recognition and was the ordination speaker, and Steven Windmueller, who received a doctorate in Humane Letters, honoris causa, each had recently announced retirements, and two of the newly ordained rabbis from a class of 13, Yonaton (Yoni) Regev and Micah Ellenson, became the next generation in their respective families to enter the life of rabbinics.
“You who are being ordained — delight! You who have worked and sacrificed and prayed that they might be ordained — rejoice!” Levy said as he began his address to the incoming rabbis.
For Ellenson, in particular, there was a group of teachers joining in the rejoicing. “My dad and stepmom are rabbis,” said Ellenson whose mother, Lynn Hanson, is a retired middle- and high-school teacher.
At the ceremony, creating the sense of a torch-passing, Rabbi Jackie Ellenson, Micah’s stepmother, presented him, while his father, Rabbi David Ellenson, who recently retired as president of HUC-JIR, ordained him.
For Ellenson, the path to this day was not a direct one.
“I did not know I always wanted to be a rabbi,” Ellenson said. However, he was quick to point out that rabbinics “is not a second career. This is a continuation of my career path,” he said.
After college, he worked at Nickelodeon in film and education, but eventually realized that he was looking for something else. He enrolled in graduate school at what was then the University of Judaism (Now American Jewish University) and graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree in education, then started in the rabbinic program.
Although he grew up attending the Conservative Temple Beth Am, he gradually realized that he “felt a closer kinship to Reform Judaism” and switched to HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program, said Ellenson, who will become director of congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch-Sinai in Seattle.
“To be a teacher is first and foremost. … [Being] a rabbi allows me to teach,” said Ellenson, who for 12 years, including his rabbinic internship, was a youth director at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It was also there that he met his wife, Sara Ellenson.
As far as acclimating himself to Seattle, Ellenson said he can adapt to the Seahawks “without any dissonance,” despite being a lifelong Dodgers and Lakers fan.
Also ordained was Yoni Regev, another older student who represented a passing down of Torah sparks.
Regev, who was born in Jerusalem, is the son of Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and lawyer who formerly was director of the Reform movement’s political voice in Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center. “He was never a congregational rabbi,” said the younger Regev, who will be assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland.
Like Ellenson, being a rabbi was not the younger Regev’s first calling.
Originally interested in pursuing a career in singing, Regev studied music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “He has a wonderful singing voice,” said Ellenson, who has been a friend of Regev’s since before rabbinical school.
“I thought I was going to cantorial school,” said Regev, who decided instead that “the rabbinic track was the right direction. I could be a singing rabbi,” he said.
“I grew up in a world where rabbinic work was a reality of life … values in Judaism were expressed in real-life terms,” said Regev, whose father has been engaged with advancing civil and religious rights for Jews in Israel and monitoring human rights in the occupied territories.
Regev felt that becoming a congregational rabbi would allow him to express and teach many of Judaism’s’ “important values” at the grass-roots level. “It’s where the real questions happen,” he said.
“Our fathers are very close friends,” Regev said. David Ellenson, “signed our ketubah as one of our witnesses,” added Regev, who is married to Lara Pullan Regev, an HUC-JIR rabbinic student who will be ordained next year.
Having lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, Regev believes he can “speak to the realities of the Israeli experience” and “is open to dialogue on the role of Israel in American Jewish life.”
According to Windmueller, who is retiring from his faculty position at HUC-JIR, such openness will be what is called for in the future environment of organized Judaism.
A former dean of the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus and former director of HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Communal Service, he has written and lectured extensively on the changes in the American-Jewish community. He has written that the Jewish community is currently in the midst of the “third American Jewish Revolution,” where institutional life has been “moving from the parochial to the global.”
In an interview, he urged the new rabbis to “look beyond your borders,” have a “willingness to experiment with alternative ventures” and to “go outside the Jewish community” to look at “nonprofits and business for new tools.”
Levy, who began his career in Los Angeles as an assistant rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and became director of UCLA Hillel in 1968, has observed recent changes as well.
Levy knew from the age of 13 that he wanted to be a rabbi, and he eventually rose to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the HUC’s Los Angeles campus. “Lay people have wanted to deepen their own spiritual lives, and we need to help them do that,” he said.
After retiring as the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth, and lecturer on Judaic studies, Levy plans to continue teaching and davening with the students on the HUC-JIR campus.
At the ordination, speaking with passion, Levy sought to fire up the class of new rabbis: “Be bold. Act with humility — but act boldly. Love boldly,” he said. “Do God’s commands boldly. Do justice boldly. And if you do, if you speak the beautiful words God has taught us out of love, and if you act with courage and sensitivity and conviction, you will lead this people and this movement into the Promised Land,” he said.
"Enjoy this day, rabbanei segulah, precious rabbis—and may God light a bonfire in each one of your hearts,” he said.