Rabbi David Ellenson Announces Retirement of Dr. Norman Cohen as Provost

Thursday, December 4, 2008

This week's Torah portion Va'yetzei begins with the words, "And Jacob departed (Va'yetzei) Be'er Sheva and went to Haran."  Rashi, in a telling commentary on this verse, observes that it was not necessary to begin the verse with the phrase, "And Jacob departed Be'er Sheva."  Rather, he states, it would have been sufficient for the verse to have simply said, "And he went to Haran."  Rashi goes on to explains that this phrase regarding the departure of Jacob was added to emphasize that Jacob was a righteous man and leader (tzaddik), and his departure had an unavoidably profound impact upon the locale where he had been.  Indeed, writes Rashi, when a tzaddik departs, then the "glory (hod), splendor (ziv), and beauty (hadar)" that infuse his being accompany him as he moves on.  There is a profound feeling of gratitude for the gifts the tzaddik bestowed upon the community while he was present.  At the same time, there is an unavoidable and genuine sense of loss that marks his departure.    

This Rashi captures precisely how I feel at this moment as it is with a great sense of both gratitude and loss that I inform you that Dr. Norman Cohen has announced his retirement as Provost of the College-Institute as of July 1, 2009.  Norman was first my teacher thirty-one years ago at HUC-JIR, and is an esteemed scholar.  More importantly, he has been my mentor and friend ever since.  He has provided decades of dedicated service to the College-Institute and during the course of those years has been no less a mentor and friend to countless other colleagues and students than he has been to me.    

Norman has fulfilled fourteen years of distinguished leadership as the chief academic officer of our institution and has advanced HUC-JIR's excellence through an extensive array of initiatives during his tenure as Provost.  It has been a singular honor for me to have served with him during the past seven years, and I proudly recount all he has accomplished through his academic leadership.

Since 1995, Norman has revitalized the faculty through the appointments of over 20 emerging scholars, of whom half are women, thereby fostering an egalitarian faculty representative of the values of the Reform Movement.  He has nurtured the faculty's scholarly development and their integration, across the campuses, through biennial faculty retreats and the use of new technology that has strengthened partnership in teaching areas and introduced the innovation of team-taught courses in our e-classrooms.  

As part of our strategic planning processes, Norman has led diverse task forces of dedicated faculty, including the consultation of outside experts, to evaluate and revise our rabbinical, cantorial, education, communal service, and graduate studies programs, as well as our admissions and recruitment strategies, and continuing alumni education.  Among the many accomplishments derived from these efforts is our core rabbinical curriculum, which has advanced more rigorous admissions standards and stands as a model for all other academic programs and for our peer institutions.  

Faced with the challenges of a changing Jewish community, Norman led faculty and administration in the effort to intensify professional leadership development and infused it throughout the curricula with support from Bonnie and Daniel Tisch, the Mandel Foundation, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Davidson Chair in Social Responsibility.  He has also led the planning process to address student assessment, and created a systematic process that fosters summative as well as ­­formative assessment.

Associated with HUC-JIR since his rabbinical student days, Norman was ordained in New York in 1971, following his B.A. degree from Columbia College in 1964.  He continued his studies at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, where he was awarded his Ph.D. in Midrash in 1977.  His faculty career flourished and he was appointed Director of the Rabbinical School in New York in 1986 and Dean of the New York School in 1988.  He served as Acting President of the College-Institute in 2000 during its 125th anniversary year, and provided vital direction in advance of my becoming President. 

An internationally recognized scholar of Midrash, Norman has lectured and written extensively for learned and popular audiences.  Among his publications are Self, Struggle & Change:  Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and their Healing Insights for our Lives, Voices from Genesis:  Guiding us through the Stages of Life, The Way into Torah,  Hineini in our Lives, and, most recently, Moses and the Journey to Leadership; Timeless Lessons of Effective Management from the Bible and Today's Leaders, all published by Jewish Lights. He was a participant in Bill Moyers' Genesis: A Living Conversation series on PBS.

Norman has been a constant source of inspiration, vision, and guidance to me and so many others throughout our institution.  As he departs his position as Provost, I am grateful that he will continue to serve on the faculty as Professor of Midrash and that in this capacity he will still grace our community with his wisdom and his knowledge, his enduring friendship and his constant support.   


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu