Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Mourns the Passing of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D.

David Ellenson

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) shares with great sorrow the sudden passing of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., renowned educator, scholar, leader, and friend. The Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, Rabbi Ellenson served distinguished terms both as President (2001-2013) and as Interim President (2018–2019), returning to guide the institution following the tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l.

“It is impossible to overstate David’s importance to the Jewish People, Reform Judaism, and to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in particular,” said President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D. “His scholarship and depth of knowledge were world-renowned, and his humility, warmth, generosity of spirit, and deep concern for each individual inspired all of us who had the privilege to know him. I feel blessed to have had him as a friend and mentor, and will miss him dearly.”

Collage of photos of David Ellenson

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 were distinguished by his devotion to sustaining HUC-JIR’s academic excellence.

Deeply influenced by his upbringing in Newport News, Virginia, Rabbi Ellenson was struck by the dissonance between the world of his Orthodox home and the non-Jewish world outside, an experience that shaped his path and future scholarly exploration of the Jewish condition.

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, and supported faculty research and publication, resulting in scores of new books and scholarly articles each year. Eight new faculty chairs were established under his tenure. Embracing innovation and change, he brought Debbie Friedman, z”l, onto the cantorial faculty, leading to the eventual renaming of the School in her honor, and engaged faculty in new academic partnerships.

Remembering Rabbi Ellenson

Read and share tributes to this remarkable Jewish scholar, leader, and friend.

View Tributes

Rabbi Ellenson invigorated HUC-JIR’s stateside programs through a myriad of initiatives. He transformed the professional leadership development of HUC-JIR’s students by inspiring the philanthropic investment to create 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 and pastoral care studies were enhanced throughout the institution.

Introducing new distance learning initiatives, he strengthened the campuses and their research resources and facilities. He spearheaded the renovation of the renowned Klau Library and the dedication of its Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati Pavilion as well as 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. During his tenure, 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.

Donate in Rabbi Ellenson’s Honor

At the family’s request, donations in Rabbi Ellenson’s memory may be made to support HUC-JIR’s Year in Israel program and Israel Rabbinical Program.

Donate Now

As a staunch advocate of Israel engagement for HUC-JIR’s students in 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.

Widely respected for his scholarship, integrity, and menschlichkeit, Rabbi Ellenson’s collaborative leadership reflected his commitment to advancing Jewish unity. He forged closer ties between HUC-JIR and the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Conference of Cantors, the Association of Reform Jewish Educators, and the other arms of the Reform Movement. At the same time, he fostered interdenominational and interfaith relations, strengthening relationships among the Jewish seminaries, secular universities, and institutions of other faiths through academic and programmatic partnerships, including the University of Southern California (USC) and Xavier University.

He wrote prolifically about emerging trends in American Jewish life, advocated for Jewish day schools, and spoke out on key issues in North American society, including LGBTQIA+ rights, marriage equality, stem cell research, and abortion ban laws. He championed the State of Israel’s right to security and peace in the face of Iran’s threats and the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He was an outspoken advocate for religious tolerance and pluralism in the Jewish State. Through all of these efforts, he 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 earned an M.Phil. degree from Columbia University as well as an M.A. degree from HUC-JIR and the University of Virginia. He received his B.A. degree from the College of William & 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.

We send our deepest condolences to his beloved family: his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson ‘83, his children Ruth Andrew Ellenson (Lorne), Rabbi Micah Ellenson ‘14 (Sara), fourth-year HUC-JIR rabbinical student Hannah Miram Ellenson (Rebecca), Nomi Ellenson May (Spencer), and Rafi Ellenson, and his four grandchildren Lily, Rose, Shai, and Yonah.

The funeral was held on Sunday, December 10 at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York. Watch the recording here. Shiva was held 4-7 p.m., Monday through Thursday, also at Rodeph Sholom, with a minyan held at 6 p.m. each of those evenings.