Honoring the Life of Rabbi David Ellenson at a Post-Shloshim Gathering

February 7, 2024

David Ellenson

Rabbis and scholars from across the denominational spectrum joined HUC-JIR leaders, former students, and academic colleagues to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., as a renowned educator, scholar, leader, mentor, and friend at a ceremony at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that marked the shloshim, or 30 days, following his sudden passing in December.

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.

“David was always there for others when they needed him,” said Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D, President of HUC-JIR. “And he was always here for the College as well.”

In addition to his Reform movement bona fides, which included receiving his smicha, or ordination, from the College-Institute, Rabbi Ellenson’s scholarly interests included Jewish unity and the origins of Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany. It was therefore fitting that at the shloshim, he received tributes from notable leaders from many strands of the Jewish community, including: Rabbi David Adelson, D.Min., Dean of the New York Campus of HUC-JIR;  Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the Chancellor and Irving Lehrman Research Professor of American Jewish History and Sala and Walter Schlesinger Dean of the Gershon Kekst Graduate School at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, President of Hebrew College in Boston; Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Reconstructing Judaism; and Dr. Daniel Hartman, President of The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“So many colleagues in the world of scholarship, countless students, readers of his books, and admirers of his words benefited from David Ellenson’s steady, focused and open leadership. He had that special ability to be both a profound scholar and an exceptional institutional leader. Three successive JTS Chancellors, including myself and countless JTS faculty were blessed to call him both colleague and friend,” said Dr. Schwartz. “All of us gather here today in person and virtually miss him terribly. May we find comfort in imagining him continuing to serve in this role in olam ha-ba (the world to come) nourishing others and filling the afterlife with kindness, sweetness, brilliance, and sound judgment.”

“He’s the only person who I ever met who everybody loved. Everybody,” said Dr. Hartman. “One of the beautiful statements of our tradition is that derekh eretz (proper behavior) comes before Torah. How you treat other people comes before your truth, your beliefs, your affiliations. But David took it one step further. For David, derekh eretz didn’t precede Torah—it was the essence of his Torah, and all of his scholarship, and sophistication. And for him, everything stood on that foundation of decency.”

Three scholars also provided short study sessions in memory of Rabbi Ellenson: Dr. Leah Hochman, Director of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California and Associate Professor of Jewish Thought, and two of his former pupils, Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Joseph Skloot, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History and Associate Director of the Tisch Fellowship Program at Hebrew Union College in New York.

Rabbi Dalia Marx recalled meeting Rabbi Ellenson for the first time during her first year of rabbinical school at the College-Institute in Jerusalem, when he was her liturgy teacher. “He opened this world for me, and I never left,” she said, noting that Rabbi Ellenson wrote the forward to her recently published book, From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar. “Lately, after his passing, I opened my notes from the course he gave about liberal liturgy and I was astonished. I was literally amazed to find that so much of what I know, and what I understand about Jewish worship, Jewish liturgy, and Jewish ritual stem from that [class].”

In his remarks, Rabbi Skloot shared that when he was still an undergraduate student, he dared to send an academic paper that he had written to Rabbi Ellenson, who had just been appointed head of the College-Institute. “A few weeks later. I received in my campus mailbox, a copy of that paper with David’s handwritten comments and the encouragement to continue pursuing the study of modern Jewish history,” he said. “And with his guidance, I pursued the rabbinate at HUC-JIR and then my doctorate at Columbia. It is because of David along with my friend and teacher Rabbi Aaron Pankin, of blessed memory, that I have the greatest possible honor serving on the faculty of HUC-JIR.”  Read Rabbi Skloot’s full remarks here.

In her remarks, Dr. Hochman shared a teaching about how Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer—a founder of modern Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany and a focus of Rabbi Ellenson’s scholarship—defended the work and legacy of Moses Mendelssohn, the late 18th century father of the Jewish Enlightenment. In Hildesheimer’s time, there was a debate about whether it was proper to honor Mendelssohn, seen by some as a heretic, with a statue in his hometown of Dessau. Dr. Hochman said Hildesheimer defended Mendelssohn, and wrote that in lieu of erecting a monument, it would be better to follow Mendelssohn’s example in thought and in action, thus creating an everlasting monument to him in one’s heart, as well as in the hearts of one’s children and grandchildren. Such a monument, he wrote, would be far more permanent than one made of earth or stone.

With respect to Rabbi Ellenson’s legacy as a parent and scholar, Dr. Hochman said, “The true monuments of the heart are to be found in David’s children, and in their words, in their actions and, in time, his own great grandchildren. As David showed in his reading of Hildesheimer, and as we have shown in our own disparate readings of David’s monuments of the heart, they can withstand the perils of time or weather.”