Saturday, October 12, 2002

How HUC molds Jewish leaders


Q&A

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rabbi David Ellenson is being inaugurated as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion against a backdrop of increasing tensions in the Middle East, a potential war with Iraq and a shortage of rabbis in the United States. The Cincinnati Enquirer asked his views on a number of topics.

DAVID ELLENSON
Born: 1947 in Brookline, Mass.; raised in Newport News, Va.
Education: B.A. from the College of William and Mary; M.A. degrees from Columbia University, HUC-JIR and the University of Virginia; Ph.D. from Columbia University
Ordained a rabbi: 1977 at HUC-JIR's New York campus.
Family: Married to Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson; five children: Micah, Hannah, Naomi, Raphael and Ruth Guffey-Ellenson.
Career: Served as a member of the HUC-JIR faculty since 1979. From 1981 to 1997, he was also director of the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies. Since 1999, he has served as a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem and a fellow and lecturer in the Institute of Advanced Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In June 2001 he was named the eighth president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Residence: New York (although he has an office and residence near all four HUC campuses — Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem).
IF YOU GO
What: Inauguration of Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D. as the eighth president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Plum Street Temple (also known as Isaac M. Wise Temple), Eighth and Plum streets, downtown.
Activities open to the public: Campus tours will be available 9-11 a.m. The inauguration is also open. There will be check-in and security tables at the campus entrance and outside Plum Street Temple. Those attending need to bring photo identification.
Information: (513) 221-1875.
HUC HISTORY
Hebrew Union College was established in 1875 in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism. It is the oldest institution of higher Jewish education in the United States and the leadership development center of Reform Judaism. The libraries — with nearly 700,000 volumes — are ranked among the world's largest repositories of Judaica and Hebraica from the 10th century to present day.
QUESTION: Since HUC was founded, three other distinct campuses have formed — in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. What remains special about the campus in Cincinnati?

ANSWER: The flagship campus of the Hebrew Union College is Cincinnati. Our major library and archival holdings are here. Therefore, Cincinnati remains the premier research center of the college. The Klau Library is the second-largest Jewish research library containing Judaica in the entire world. The only library that represents a greater cultural repository of Jewish literary texts is the national library of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Q: Many in the Reform movement have said your position makes you one of the most important Jewish leaders in America and the most prominent American Jewish voice. What do you hope to accomplish in this position?

A: I would not claim that I am by any means the most important voice. But there are steps that I would like the college in particular to take and American Judaism in general to adopt.

The Hebrew Union College really is the intellectual fountainhead of liberal Judaism in the world. We have a sacred responsibility to educate cantors, educators, rabbis and communal workers who will speak in a liberal Jewish idiom in a world where religious fundamentalism tends to dominate.

The role of an institution like the Hebrew Union College in helping to forge a progressive, open, liberal religious voice is genuinely more crucial than ever precisely because we have seen in recent years what some of the ill effects are of religious fundamentalism: the lack of openness, the lack of tolerance, the lack of an appreciation of pluralism.

In an age of al-Qaida and the type of religious extremism that we see visible in so many parts of the world, our liberal religious voice is more crucial today than ever. The Reform movement in Judaism has become the largest denomination in American Jewish life.

Q: What has been the most trying aspect of your first year as president?

A: The maintenance of our year-in-Israel program. My commitment to Zionism and the centrality of the state of Israel in forging a modern Jewish religion and identity are absolute. My own son (Micah),who is 24 years old and who is studying to be a rabbi at a Conservative institution, is currently in Israel and my family and I go to Israel quite often. For me, it has been very emotionally trying. I have had a genuine concern for the well-being and health of our students.

Q: You have said that one of the most serious problems you will confront as president is the shortage of rabbis. Howdo you plan to address it?

A: When I first took office we realized immediately this problem of rabbinic shortage was an acute one. Last year, the college ordained 32 persons as rabbis. This year we have a record number, more than we have had in 20 years — 56 first-year students. Both the economy and Sept. 11, I believe, did have an impact. I think people have begun to ask what they can do vocationally that would be of enduring worth.

In the short term, if we could move up to 70 to 80 students in a class of entering rabbinical students we think that within a decade we would have met the shortage that we confront in our numbers of clergy.

Q: You have been to Israel seven times since you were named HUC president. Can you describe what it's like to be there?

A: If one would watch television I would imagine that one would have the idea that terror and open combat mark the streets of Israel proper in Jerusalem at each and every moment.

Life in Israel is experienced in a radically different way than this. The genuine reality is that in between bombings, life takes place in as normal a manner as it's taking place in Cincinnati today. What you live with in Israel is the reality and knowledge that there is purposeful, random violence that could occur at any single moment. I would never want to say that there is not a psychological pressure that marks the lives of Israelis today. Having said that, you can go through days, weeks and months where there is no violence.

Q: Is the escalating violence affecting the decisions of scholars to travel to Israel? And how important is it to the institution that students go?

A: Forty-one students elected to study in Israel this year and 27 elected to study stateside (22 in Cincinnati). Five students are cantorial students and they are in New York. The college-institute believes that a first-hand experience with the reality of the state of Israel is essential if our students are to develop an appropriate sense of Jewish peoplehood that will allow them to serve as Jewish religious leaders.

Suicide bombings are a terrorist tactic that has changed the way in which danger has to be calculated. As a result we have taken the unprecedented step — unprecedented over the last 32 years — of offering our first-year students this year the opportunity to defer their first year of study in Israel. I do want to emphasize we have not canceled the requirement in any way. No student will be ordained a rabbi or invested a cantor who does not spend a year of study in Israel. But we felt that we had to give students the choice in this particular year.

Q: In light of the recent bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, how has HUC increased security at the Jerusalem campus?

A: We have a number of additional guards on campus and there are identification cards that are issued for students and others who come ... and other steps that have been taken.

Q: What are your thoughts on a potential preemptive strike on Iraq?

A: There is no question that if Iraq develops nuclear capability that Israel would perhaps be a potential target of Iraqi ire. I do believe the Iraqi regime is among the most prominent regimes that sponsor terrorism within the area. Precisely how one is then to proceed is a question of American foreign policy.

Q: The majority of HUC students are Jewish, but the school of graduate studies attracts people of all faiths. How important is the commitment to foster interfaith partnerships?

A: We see interfaith relationships as one of the absolute priorities of the college-institute. . We feel that the liberal spirit that animates Judaism can find expression in our relationships with our non-Jewish neighbors. We are very proud that a large number of our graduate students are non-Jewish. A number of our alumni serve in seminaries and universities throughout the United States and the world and we see the graduate program as a crowning gem in the diadem that marks Hebrew Union College.

E-mail kgoetz@enquirer.com



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