If you polled New Yorkers active in Jewish life and asked them who among their leaders was most beloved, it’s a fair bet that Rabbi David Ellenson would top the list. With good reason.
Rabbi Ellenson, 66, who stepped down last December as president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion after more than a decade at the helm, impresses with his wealth of knowledge about all things Jewish — his specialty is the Modern Orthodox movement that began in 19th century Germany. But unlike many academics, he exudes a gentle warmth, sense of caring and Southern charm, even though he left his native Newport News, Va. as a youngster and has spent most of his life in Los Angeles and New York.
So it was no surprise that the dinner and celebration of his career, sponsored by HUC-HIR, drew an overflow crowd of more than 500 people to the elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown on May 6. And given Rabbi Ellenson’s many and varied personal relationships throughout the community, every branch of Judaism was represented by prominent lay and professional leaders who were there “for David,” as were so many others.
The event raised $1.3 million for HUC-JIR, where Rabbi Ellenson has spent the last three decades, first as student and then as faculty member and top administrator.
“My soul is bound to this institution and to the holy mission that animates it,” he wrote last year in announcing his retirement. “It has been the greatest privilege to devote my life to this school.”
In his lengthy, off-the-cuff remarks at evening’s end, sometimes rambling but always tender, the rabbi noted his pride as president in making the year in Israel for rabbinical students a priority, even during the intifada. And he acknowledged the low point being the financial hardships set off by the national economic crisis of 2008 and ’09.
The rabbi paid tribute to his family members, including cousins from out of town, as well as close friends — both living and deceased — and rabbinic colleagues, faculty associates, board leaders and philanthropic supporters.
His loving reminisinces reflected what previous speakers during the program said about him: that he treats everyone with thoughtfulness and compassion. Indeed, it was a testament to the affection so many have for him that no one snuck out as the hour grew late.
A highlight from among the speakers earlier in the program was Rabbi Ellenson’s lifelong friend, Skip Vichness, now a leader in the field of Jewish camping, who grew up a few blocks away from the honoree and has been close ever since. He recalled how they were the two skinny point guards for the local JCC basketball team as kids. Underscoring what Southern Jewish life was like in the 1950s and early ’60s, he said that when the JCC team won the local championship, the Newport News daily sports headline read: “Upset Of The Year: Jews Win.”
The tribute the other night to Rabbi Ellenson, benefiting HUC-JIR, was a victory for both, and no surprise.