Yesterday morning, the man who the New York Jewish Week described in 2013 as “everybody’s favorite rabbi” passed away suddenly at the age of 76. Like virtually everyone involved in Jewish life in this country or in Israel, I considered Rabbi David Ellenson a friend and am very saddened by his passing.
David was the unique Jewish leader who respected and was respected by every corner of the Jewish community. He spent most of his career as a professor and administrator at the Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, but he was never a narrowly sectarian Reform rabbi. I knew of him during my studies at HUC, but I was at the Cincinnati campus and he was in Los Angeles. But my friends and classmates in LA spoke so highly of him not only as a scholar and teacher but also as a mensch of the highest order.
I met him for the first time in 1995 when I moved to LA for an administrative position at what was then the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University. Although a Reform rabbi, David belonged to the same Conservative shul as I did and we saw each other most Shabbatot at the Library Minyan of Temple Beth Am. It made absolute sense for someone who grew up Orthodox and became a Reform rabbi to be a member of a Conservative shul. David was one of the kindest people I knew. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face and always wore his emotions on his sleeve -- not in a showy or demonstrative way but simply as a measure of his authenticity.
I was so happy to introduce David to Keleigh a couple of years after we got married, when we spent the summer in Jerusalem at the Hartman Institute, where David taught rabbis of all denominations every summer. In 2011 when I received an honorary doctorate from HUC, David was the President of HUC and presented me with my doctoral diploma. I was the first honoree that year because we were called in alphabetical order, and there was some sort of mishap when the Dean called my name too early, but David made a sweet and funny comment that set everyone at ease and gave me a big bear hug when I finally came up to get my doctoral hood and diploma.
Rabbi David Ellenson grew up in a modern Orthodox home in Newport News, Virginia. He got his bachelor’s degree at William and Mary and a master’s in Religious Studies at U.Va. before heading to New York where he was simultaneously in rabbinical school at HUC and doctoral studies in history at Columbia. His specialty was the rise of modern Orthodoxy and Jewish intellectual responses to modernity. He served as President of HUC twice; the first time from 2001 until 2012 and again in 2018-19 as Acting President when his successor Rabbi Aaron Panken died in a plane crash. Between his two HUC presidential terms he taught at Brandeis and he was most recently a senior scholar at the Hartman Institute in New York. On Wednesday night he went to the Jewish Center in Manhattan, a premier Modern Orthodox synagogue, for the launch of a book by his friend Rabbi J.J. Schachter, a professor at Yeshiva University. He passed away yesterday morning, Erev Chanukah, and there is less light in the Jewish world.
A quick reminder on procedure for lighting the Chanukah candles. We add candles to the chanukiah from right to left so that candle 1 is the furthest right, candle 2 is the next, and so on. But we light from left to right so that the newest candle is lit first. Tonight we light the chanukiah first and then the Shabbat candles -- because once we have lit the Shabbat candles we are no longer allowed to kindle or transfer a flame. Tomorrownight, we follow the opposite procedure -- we do not light the chanukiah until after Havdalah.
Tomorrow morning services will be followed by a Volunteer Appreciation Kiddush Luncheon and then a Kiddush Konversation. My topic will be “Will the Real Chanukah Please Stand Up?” I will share with you some texts, from the Talmud to the United States of the current century that will shed light on how different communities have perceived the true meaning of Chanukah.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoons from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian