Pop into a greasy spoon or a McDonald’s on the Upper West Side, and you may spy a bearish, bearded man sitting in a booth by himself, sipping a Coke while he concentrates on his laptop and the papers fanned out on the table.
That would be Rabbi David Ellenson, hiding out in a restaurant where he won’t even eat and is pretty sure he won’t see anyone he knows, in an effort to catch a quiet hour or two of writing away from the ringing telephones of his office. It’s something he tries to do a couple of times each week, to work on an upcoming speech or on correspondence.
It’s an unconventional way for a university president to find quiet time — but then, there are a lot of things that Rabbi Ellenson, 54, who on Sunday was inaugurated president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, doesn’t do the usual way.
Some of his practices would be typical, if he were an Orthodox or Conservative Jew. But even with the Reform movement’s recent shift toward tradition, it remains rare to see one of its leading rabbis choosing to lunch in a glatt kosher restaurant, and before eating, washing his hands and reciting the blessing over bread, as he did during a recent interview.
“It’s great to be back on the Upper West Side,” says the 54-year old rabbi, over a lunch of hummus and grilled chicken breast. He lived in the neighborhood in the 1970s while studying for his doctorate at Columbia. In August, he and his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, moved from Los Angeles to Central Park West, with the three youngest of their five children, a boy in third grade and two teenaged daughters. Their oldest daughter is a freelance writer, and their oldest son is a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism. Both are in their 20s and remained in L.A.
Though HUC-JIR is located in Greenwich Village, it was clear to the Ellensons that they would live uptown. “We didn’t consider any other neighborhood,” he says.
“I like everything about the neighborhood. I like its vibrancy, the way it pulsates, the fact that I’m always running into new friends and old acquaintances. It’s got the richest intellectual life in North America.”
It is a homecoming for Rabbi Ellenson’s family — his wife grew up in the neighborhood and her entire extended family still lives there.
But his selection as president of the Reform movement’s 127-year-old, four-campus university is in many respects an unusual choice, and represents a marked shift in direction for the leadership of Judaism’s largest denomination.
Rabbi Ellenson is an unusual combination of traditional practice (he keeps kosher, observes Shabbat and the second day of festivals), expertise in Orthodoxy (his dissertation was on Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, a founder of modern Orthodoxy), ardent Zionism and somewhat radical theology, in which total equality for women and homosexuals is deeply rooted.
One of his first goals as president was to hire more faculty members. In the 15 months since his appointment to HUC-JIR’s presidency (it took the ensuing year-plus to get things organized for his inauguration, he says), he has appointed about 15 new faculty members, the majority of whom are young and female.
Though more observant than most of the rest of his movement, Rabbi Ellenson says that “my approach to observance is totally Reform. I am not a halachic Jew, and not in the Reform movement by any sort of mistake.
“As I see it, halacha represents an external set of observances one is obligated to follow,” said Ellenson, who was raised in an Orthodox home. In his view, he says, the impetus to observe must come from within: “The challenge is to confront the tradition and see how it speaks to you.”
Heterodoxy is visible in his personal spiritual life, too: he and his family spent the High Holy Days at the major Reform temple on the Upper West Side, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, whose rabbi is one of his oldest friends. But on the traditional night of Simchat Torah, which by then had ended for the Reform movement, which observes one less day of Jewish festivals than is traditional, they attended Conservative synagogue B’nai Jeshurun.
“I’m looking forward to trying out a lot of the synagogues” in the area, he said. “We feel comfortable in a variety of Jewish settings.”
His scholarly articles have been published in journals from Tradition, an Orthodox publication, to Tikkun, a left-wing political/religious magazine, and in much of what lies in between. He has delivered addresses at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodox Bar Ilan University, as well as Christian seminaries and, of course, at many Reform movement gatherings.
“He is in many ways a new paradigm for a president of the college,” said Rabbi Andrew Bachman, a Reform rabbi who heads the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at New York University. “He has a strong commitment to Reform Judaism but an equally strong commitment to service of the Jewish people regardless of denomination.”
His selection “reflects the evolution of Reform Judaism in America. So many students entering the college (HUC-JIR) have been trending more toward observing deeper aspects of Jewish tradition that were not observed in the Reform movement for many years,” Rabbi Bachman said. “He represents a lot of where (rabbinical) students are at,” religiously speaking.
His selection “is a vote against further dilution of Judaism,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. “It is a vote in favor of enriching the religious content of Reform Judaism. There is no long-term survival of the Jewish community in America without a deep anchor in the Jewish religion,” he said. “We all need more of it.”
Rabbi Ellenson was, in many respects, an unlikely choice for his new post: After a career in the classroom, primarily at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, he had little administrative or fundraising experience.
“One of the major reservations of the search committee” was his lack of fund-raising experience, said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. But in the 16 months since his appointment, “He’s proven himself to be the scholar and mensch” that everyone knew him to be, “but also [proven] his ability to be an effective fund raiser.”
Rabbi Ellenson gets universal praise from his colleagues in the Reform movement and outside of it, as a “brilliant” scholar and charismatic teacher.
“People are drawn to him,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s congregational umbrella, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“He’s a very beloved teacher on all levels and has taught in every conceivable setting. The brightest and most productive professors aren’t always comfortable being among ‘the people,’ ” said Rabbi Yoffie, but “he’s somebody that a lot of people, in our movement, have learned from.”
Rabbi Ellenson is committed to not leaving behind the life of the mind, even with the demands of his new position. He continues to write scholarly articles and prepare lectures, eagerly anticipating a four-part series of talks he is slated to deliver at the Manhattan JCC starting in January.
He will discuss the views of great Jewish thinkers, each of whom, he says, has shaped his own thinking: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan, Joseph Soloveitchik, David Hartman and Eugene Borowitz, Art Green, Marcia Falk and Rachel Adler.
In his inaugural address, at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati last Sunday, he described “different Jewish leaders of every denominational stripe and inclination” as “my conversation partners in the ongoing dialogues that form modern Judaism.”
Rabbi Ellenson spends each summer teaching in Jerusalem, at the Hartman Institute and at Hebrew University, where this year the subject of his lectures was one of his typically quirky marriages of tradition and contemporary concerns: the responsa literature composed by Israel’s early rabbis on women’s suffrage.
Last year Rabbi Ellenson visited Israel seven times, choosing to run the first-year rabbinical school program in Jerusalem even as other programs shut down, their students staying in the U.S. out of fear of terrorism.
“The most painful experience of my entire career” was, he says, when he decided last April to shorten the Jerusalem campus’ academic year by three weeks to enable some of the “very stressed” Reform rabbinical students to return to the U.S. without missing school. The decision sparked considerable debate among HUC-JIR leaders.
The laid-back Los Angeleno has faced some challenges in his new post.
One has been in the wardrobe department. After decades of going to work each day wearing jeans, a shirt and Israeli sandals, he finds himself in a position that demands suits. And until recently, he owned only one.
Pointing to his pinstriped leg, Rabbi Ellenson says, he’s wearing the very suit he wore to his interview for the presidency. Now he owns five suits, 10 shirts and 10 ties. “It’s a completely different way of being in the world, sartorially,” he says, in a bemused tone.
One of his great pleasures in L.A, Rabbi Ellenson says, was spending time with his youngest child, 8-year-old Rafi, carpooling him between activities when the school day was over and his teaching schedule permitted it.
In his new job, though “the demands and pace of a job like this preclude my domestic involvement,” he says, with a tinge of regret.
Still, he’s managing to squeeze it in where he can. In a cell phone conversation with his wife, who is out that day shopping for the clothes her family will wear to his inauguration, he eagerly offers to go pick up Rafi from the Heschel School and take him to basketball practice at the JCC.
After lunch ends, and he turns down Amsterdam Avenue to go meet his son, there is a definite spring in his step.