Dr. David Ellenson, Ph.D., Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, served as Interim President (May 10, 2018 – March 31, 2019) after the death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l, in a plane crash on May 5, 2018. Rabbi Panken succeeded Rabbi Ellenson as President on January 1, 2014, at which time Rabbi Ellenson was named Chancellor upon his retirement from the position of President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Internationally recognized for his publications and research in the areas of Jewish religious thought, ethics, and modern Jewish history, Rabbi Ellenson’s twelve years as President of the seminary of the Reform Movement (2001-2013) were distinguished by his devotion to sustaining HUC-JIR’s academic excellence and ensuring its financial sustainability.
Rabbi Ellenson stated, “Throughout our people’s history, no Jewish community has survived without a strong institution of higher Jewish learning at its core. It has been my privilege to help ensure the vitality of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion by sustaining our campuses, nurturing our world-class faculty, supporting our students, preserving the treasures of our libraries and American Jewish Archives, strengthening our role in Israel, and preparing the leadership for a contemporary Judaism that balances tradition with the demands of a changing world.”
“Rabbi David Ellenson has brought a rare combination of intelligence, inspirational leadership, and humility to his presidency of HUC-JIR,” stated Irwin Engelman, Chairman of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors. “He has led the College-Institute with devotion, distinction, and achievement, and has advanced HUC-JIR to a position of financial stability while implementing a broad range of new initiatives and academic programs. Recognized has a giant in the Jewish world, he has strengthened the faculty, modeled exemplary leadership for our students, and expanded the image of the College-Institute. It has been a privilege to be his partner in securing HUC-JIR’s future as the preeminent institution of higher Jewish learning in North America.”
Rabbi Ellenson steered HUC-JIR through the challenges of the 2008 national economic collapse and implemented strategic planning initiatives to secure HUC-JIR’s four campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York as viable and essential venues for recruitment, service to the Reform Movement’s congregations, and educational and cultural outreach to communities throughout these regions.
Rabbi Ellenson raised over $250 million and quadrupled HUC-JIR’s endowment to approximately $200 million. From a budget deficit of $10 million only five years previously, HUC-JIR’s budget was balanced since FY 2012 through a reduction of expenses and increases in revenue. At the same time, he effected greater integration among the campuses through the introduction of electronic classrooms, cross-campus courses, and accreditation of the three stateside campuses under one accrediting agency, Middle States.
He nurtured a new generation of deans and directors of academic programs to help implement his vision. He strengthened the faculty with the addition of leading emerging scholars, equalizing the number of men and women on the faculty, and supporting faculty research and publication, resulting in scores of new books and scholarly articles each year. New chairs were established, including the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost Chair; Barbara and Stephen Friedman Chair in Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality; Rabbi Michael Matuson Chair for an Emerging Scholar; Dr. Norman J. Cohen Chair; Rabbi David Ellenson Chair in Jewish Religious Thought; Sara S. Lee Chair; Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson Chair in Social Responsibility; Dr. Alfred Gottschalk – John and Marianne Slade Chair for an Emerging Scholar in Jewish Intellectual History; Dr. Paul M. and Trudy Steinberg Chair; and Emily and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics. Embracing innovation and change, he brought Debbie Friedman, z”l, onto the cantorial faculty, and engaged faculty in the new eLearning Faculty Fellowship with Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He championed HUC-JIR’s scholarly publishing arms, supporting the HUC Annual, HUC Press, and publications by the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.
Rabbi Ellenson invigorated HUC-JIR’s stateside programs through a myriad of initiatives. He transformed the professional leadership development of HUC-JIR’s students through the creation of the Tisch Fellows, Schusterman Fellows, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music Fellows, Mandel Fellows, Jim Joseph Fellows, and Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Serving Learning Fellows programs. He instituted social responsibility and community service to the Jewish and larger world as a core pillar of HUC-JIR students’ professional development through programs with the American Jewish World Service and other organizations. The spiritual development of HUC-JIR’s students was nurtured through the support of the Joyce and Irving Goldman Foundation and through new partnerships with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and the Society for Classical Reform Judaism. Pastoral care studies were enhanced through the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling in New York, Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health in Los Angeles, and the nation’s first Jewish seminary to offer Clinical Pastoral Education in Cincinnati.
He introduced new distance learning degree and certificate programs, with the support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, to reach learners throughout North America, including the Executive M.A. in Jewish Education, the Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, and the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (with JTS); and worked with the American Conference of Cantors to inaugurate the Cantorial Certification Program. He initiated the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators with UJA-Federation of NY and JTS.
Under his leadership, the campuses and their research resources and facilities were greatly strengthened. In Cincinnati, he spearheaded the renovation of the renowned Klau Library and dedication of its Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Pavilion; the construction of the Malloy Education Building and its Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Electronic Classroom at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives; and creation of the Pines Faculty Center and Teller Lounge. The Los Angeles campus was renamed in memory of Jack H. Skirball, z”l. The Jerusalem campus was comprehensively renovated, and the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music was dedicated in New York.
As a staunch advocate of Israel engagement for HUC-JIR’s students in shaping their future roles as leaders of the North American Jewish community, Rabbi Ellenson strengthened the Jerusalem campus’s programs and outreach to the larger Israeli community. His tenure saw the exponential growth of the Israel Rabbinical Program, which prepares leaders for Israel’s Progressive Movement’s synagogues and communities. Furthermore, he initiated the development of a new M.A. Program in Pluralistic Jewish Education (with the Hebrew University’s Melton Centre), and the creation of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and its pioneering programs introducing chaplaincy and bibliotherapy to Israeli society. He expanded the Year-In-Israel program for HUC-JIR’s rabbinical, cantorial, and education students with the creation of the Richard J. Scheuer Seminar and Mandel Initiative for Visionary Leadership, and implemented Israel Seminars for HUC-JIR’s graduate students and Executive M.A. in Jewish Education students, alongside the successful Israel Seminar for students in the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.
Rabbi Ellenson transformed the governance of HUC-JIR, with the election of Barbara Friedman as the first woman Chair in the history of the institution, and the induction of a large number of distinguished women communal and civic leaders as members of the Board of Governors and regional Boards of Advisors.
Widely respected for his scholarship, integrity, and menschlichkeit, Rabbi Ellenson’s collaborative leadership has reflected his commitment to advancing Jewish unity. He has forged closer ties between HUC-JIR and the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference, and the other arms of the Reform Movement. At the same time, he has fostered interdenominational and interfaith relations, strengthening relationships among the Jewish seminaries, secular universities, and institutions of other faiths through academic and programmatic partnerships and collegiality, including the University of Southern California (USC) and Xavier University.
He has written prolifically about emerging trends in American Jewish life, advocated for Jewish day schools, and spoken out on controversies in North American society, including LGBTQI rights, marriage equality, stem cell research, and abortion ban laws. Furthermore, he has been a champion of the State of Israel’s right to security and peace in the face of Iran’s threats and the challenges of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. He has been an outspoken advocate for religious tolerance and pluralism in the Jewish State, on issues relating to who is a Jew, conversion laws, rabbinical bans on renting to Arabs, women‘s rights, and annulment of conversions. Through all of these efforts, he has demonstrated a passionate commitment to the people and State of Israel and the central role that Israel plays in the Reform Movement.
Rabbi Ellenson received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1981 and was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1977. He also holds an M.Phil. degree from Columbia University as well as the M.A. degree from HUC-JIR and the University of Virginia. He received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1969. A member of HUC-JIR’s faculty since 1979, he also held the post of Director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, which provides the undergraduate Judaic Studies program for USC.
Rabbi Ellenson’s extensive publications include Tradition in Transition: Orthodoxy, Halakhah and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish History (1989), Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (1990) (nominated for the National Jewish Book Council’s award for outstanding book in Jewish History, 1990), Between Tradition and Culture: The Dialectics of Jewish Religion and Identity in the Modern World (1994), and After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, which won the National Jewish Book Council’s Award as the outstanding book in Jewish Thought in 2005. Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in 19th- and 20th-Century Orthodox Responsa, co-authored with Daniel Gordis (2012), was named a Finalist for the National Jewish Book Council’s Award in Scholarship in 2012. Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice was published in the Jewish Publication Society-University of Nebraska Scholar of Distinction Series in 2014.