On a Sunday evening last December I sat with my father, Rabbi David Ellenson — or, as my siblings and I call him, Abba — at a diner in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Weeks away from his official retirement as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), evening descended while the holiday lights burned brightly outside.
As I listened to him speak, I could see my father’s beard was now more white than brown. He speculated on what his life might be like after retirement. Now 66, his time would be his own again. After a career devoted to the beating of Reform Judaism’s heart, his own heart’s desires were once again eligible for consideration. The irony became quickly apparent: the two heartbeats, it turned out, were not that different.
My father’s entire adult life has been spent enthralled by the promise, community and intellectual calling of liberal Judaism. Abba has been blessed to spend his professional life living out his personal passion for the Jewish people. It has brought him a great deal of fulfillment and recognition, but that has never been what matters to him. Both a rabbi and an academic, his career at HUC-JIR allowed him to lead a Jewish seminary while still being a scholar who got excited seeing his work cited in an academic colleague’s footnote.
If my father is beloved by many of the people who encounter his warmth, knowledge and humor, it’s because he is in love with the Jewish people — in spite of their complexity, but probably also because of it. That love causes him to radiate with a warm glow that invites others toward him. Abba’s sincere curiosity encompasses both people and ideas in equal measure, but its focus is almost always on am Yisra’el. It is not just a religious devotion, per se, but a deep tribalism that engages his heart and mind and motivates his life’s work.
The evening in downtown L.A. came at the end of another typical weekend in my father’s atypical life. That afternoon he performed a wedding for a lesbian couple who had been together for 31 years and were finally able to legally marry. As my father pronounced them spouses beneath the chuppah, he had tears in his eyes and spoke about how the tide of history moves towards justice, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. A day before, he had been honored at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in San Diego, a gathering of more than 5,000 people, where he was embraced by his moppet of a granddaughter, Lily, as everyone sang to him. Abba also blessed the incoming president of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken — again, with tears in his eyes — moving many of those present to tears as well.
The intimacies of family life do not always lend themselves to experiencing my father the way others see him, and I have been grateful to witness these recent moments of loving public recognition. I share that gratitude with my entire family, especially my brothers and sisters: Micah, Hannah, Nomi and Rafi. A half-minyan of children is a contribution to Jewish peoplehood in and of itself, but to see his work reflected in the lives of the many people he has taught, officiated for and befriended is a gift. As my siblings and I know — as does every rabbi’s child — to love our father is to share him with a wider world.
He grew up an Orthodox Jew in Newport News, Va. His father, Sam, was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who worked in the shipyards. Sam went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. Abba’s mother, Rosalind, a woman whose career began with involvement in Hadassah, went on to manage the social services for the city of Hampton, Va. Neither probably ever imagined their eldest son would become a leader of Reform Jewry, but I am sure they would have been very proud had they lived to see it.
My father’s childhood in the South of the 1950s and ’60s, along with those of his sister Judy and brother Jimmy, took place during a time where he knew, as a Jew, that he was “other.” While popular as a child — he was student body president of Newport News High School in 1965 and played basketball, for which he retains a passion to this day — he also recalls not being allowed to visit the country clubs of his gentile friends as their guest.
My father’s appeal, I’ve often thought, stems from a Southerner’s charm matched with a Northeasterner’s intellectual credentials. As a Jewish Southerner, Abba learned to love not only Judaism from an early age, but also American history and the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps that is why the personal freedom and intellectual adaptability of Reform Judaism fit him so well.
Growing up in the segregated South, he witnessed firsthand the unfolding of the civil rights movement, which gave him a formative example in embracing his own Jewishness with pride years later when he came to New York to pursue his graduate studies in the 1970s. Earning his rabbinical degree and doctorate, at HUC-JIR and Columbia University respectively, Abba was a member of the Upper West Side Chavurah, a period he has described as finding his intellectual and spiritual home in the world.
At Columbia he focused on Esriel Hildesheimer, a 19th century rabbi and scholar who founded a seminary in Berlin that attempted to reconcile Orthodoxy and modernity. I’ve often thought Hildesheimer appealed to my father because he echoed Abba’s own attempts to reconcile his Southern upbringing with his Judaism.
For my father, the central question that animates his passions is how to lead a meaningful Jewish life in a modern world filled with infinite choices, and how those decisions have been navigated in the past, present and future. While it is a question that has never taken root in my heart the way it has for my father, conversations with him have made me appreciate the art of questioning, and shown me that not always knowing the answer is a driving factor in the Jewish consciousness.
As I write this in late January, I am in Berlin. The city is quiet under a blanket of thick white snow, and today happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Adass Jisroel, the Berlin synagogue that Hildesheimer — the subject of my father’s scholarship — founded in 1869 still operates today. As I wandered through the streets to see what is left of the places Hildesheimer once walked, in the neighborhood known as Mitte, I thought of my father and how Judaism is wide enough and strong enough to hold the center, even when its branches bow from the weight of discord. Because of my father, I have faith that the roots will sustain me, even with my questions, and the tree will blossom. I know I am not the only one to feel that way because of my father and his work. We are lucky. Our Jewish world is a wider one because of his open mind and heart.
In his work as president, I have seen my father ordain hundreds of rabbis. This May, he will ordain my brother Micah. Micah is the first, and may be the only one, among us children to follow in our father’s rabbinic footsteps. I have no doubt that Micah’s ordination will be the most meaningful of all those my father has performed, but with each one he always offers a special moment, both private and public, as he stands before the congregation and whispers a personal blessing to each newly minted rabbi.
Although he has done this countless times, it is always a genuinely beautiful moment. For me, it recalls the Shabbat table at our home, where Abba blessed us every week. That magical moment is to this day my favorite part of being a member of a Jewish family — a pause in the chaos of life that recognizes connection, love and gratitude, and wishes each child peace.
As my father embarks on this new chapter of his life, I join with our entire family—immediate and extended, his colleagues and countless friends, each of whom he makes feel that they uniquely are the most special one of all — to offer our own blessing to him in the next chapter of his life.
May the happiness and insight he has brought so many be returned to him with abundance, and may he be granted peace.
Writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson and her father won simultaneous National Jewish Book Awards in 2005 for their respective books, “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” (Plume) and “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity” (Hebrew Union College Press).