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New Reform Seminary President is Known As Scholar of Orthodoxy

June 8, 2001
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The new president of the Reform movement’s seminary is a scholar known for his work in Jewish religious thought, ethics and modern Jewish history — and for his popularity as a teacher.

Rabbi David Ellenson, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus since 1979, will be the college’s eighth president.

Ellenson, 53, replaces Rabbi Norman Cohen, who had served as acting president of HUC since December, when Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

The new president assumes the reins of HUC at a time when many are looking to the college — which has grown dramatically in recent years and also has campuses in Cincinnati, New York and Jerusalem — to address the significant shortage of rabbis, cantors and other professionals in Reform Judaism.

With 906 member congregations, Reform is the largest stream of Judaism in North America.

Ordained at HUC but raised Orthodox, Ellenson is widely praised as an academic whose knowledge and stature extends beyond the Reform sphere, yet who is also in touch with Reform congregants and nonprofessional leaders.

In addition to his scholarly work — he is considered a leading expert on 19th-century Orthodoxy — Ellenson is a teacher in the Wexner Heritage Program, an intensive national program for lay leaders, and speaks frequently at synagogues and other venues throughout the United States.

He also directed the University of Southern California’s Judaic studies program — under HUC’s auspices — for 16 years.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Rabbi Martin Weiner, incoming president of the movement’s rabbinic organization, welcomed Ellenson’s appointment.

“Throughout our search, I was amazed at how many people I met who said they’d studied with him,” Weiner said. “He’s not just a scholar with three books and 200 articles, but has devoted an incredible amount of his energy to adult Jewish education around the country.”

Yoffie called the appointment an “inspired choice,” and said Ellenson would “move the college forward.”

Ellenson expects to face his greatest challenge in fund raising, an area in which he lacks experience. However, both he and his backers say his other skills will enable him to bring in dollars.

Fund raising, Yoffie said, is not a “technical skill. “

Instead, Yoffie said, “an effective fund-raiser in our world is somebody who is personally compelling, religiously authentic, who has charisma and who knows how to articulate the religious case for the movement and the institution.”

Paula Hyman, director of the Judaic studies program at Yale University and a longtime personal friend of Ellenson, said, “One of the essentials in fund raising is to convey your enthusiasm for a project so you can make it clear to potential donors just why they should donate to this institution, when there are so many others with hands outstretched. I think David will do that well.”

Hyman, who has known Ellenson since the two were members of a chavurah, or informal worship group, in the 1970s, described him as a “non-Orthodox scholar whom Orthodox scholars take seriously.”

“He’s a master teacher and lecturer,” she added.

Rabbi Nathan Laufer, president of the Wexner Heritage Program, said Ellenson is “a particularly warm individual, and when you come through his class you feel not only educated but loved.”

Reached at home the day after his appointment was announced, Ellenson was still adjusting to the new role.

He had spent the morning teaching a class on prayer at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, and had returned to find 100 phone messages — and twice that number of e-mails.

Asked why he wanted to take on a college presidency — a job that many say has become more difficult and frustrating in recent years, given heightened fund-raising demands — he said, “I’m aware of what many of the pitfalls and problems are, but I think it’s an opportunity to do good for the Jewish people and humankind.”

He said he hopes to continue his predecessors’ efforts in stepping up the college’s recruitment and revamping the curriculum, so that the four campuses are more unified.

“Also, if you know anyone willing to give $100 million, I’d like to speak to him or her,” he joked.

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