In Honor of Rabbi David Ellenson, of blessed memory

Jews across the globe were bereft over the sudden death last week of Rabbi David Ellenson, former President of the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religious, the Reform movement’s seminary. The Central Conference of American Rabbis shared in their statement: “David’s death on the eve of Chanukah reminds us of the light he brought into the lives of CCAR rabbis, HUC-JIR, the Reform Movement and the Jewish people. David was at heart a teacher, and he taught not only academics, but showed us a model of how to live with integrity and kindness.

Upon Rabbi Ellenson’s retirement in 2013, I was invited to be part of an event honoring David by sharing a text. Here’s the talk I shared:

It is with the utmost humility that I stand here today.  I was a young second and third year student in Dr. Ellenson’s classes in Los Angeles on Jewish Religious Thought. I was awed, and to be honest a bit intimidated, by his depth of wisdom and knowledge. Today, I still feel like that young student with so little knowledge in the shadow of such greatness (even though the lines on my face and the gray hair I cover up are a testament to the rabbinic time I have served). 

In honoring Dr. Ellenson, we were each asked to find a text. I’m not sure what is harder finding the perfect gift for someone we care about or finding the perfect text.  

I told Jackie, David’s wife, that he is irreplaceable.  If I were to pick an Urban Dictionary text, I would say, David is the Total Package.   When one is dating, one often has their ideal list of attributes they want in a partner. In most young adults, that total package is a person who has it all — the combination of both looks and personality, sense of humor, and kindness.   If one thinks finding the perfect soul mate is a challenge, the options becomes far more limited when seeking a President of our Seminary. David has it all – a stellar mind and the depths of menschlichkeit. He has head and heart in equal measure. He has wisdom and a wonderful way with everyone. He was my teacher in my formative years of my rabbinate and continues to be my teacher today.  He is a rabbinic exemplar modeling for all of us what a rabbi could and should be.  

David, You have always been welcoming – whether I was a twenty five year old student invited into your Los Angeles home for lunch, whether I was making one of my frequent calls to Jackie and you picked up the phone to start the conversation, or whether we were celebrating together at one of your family’s simchas in Charlotte.  

Dr. Ellenson taught me early on that the sea of sacred literature is vast and he remembers so much of it, even without a note in front of him. I share with you one pearl from that ocean that speaks to me of him. This text from Masechet Derekh Eretz Zuta a minor tractate of the Talmud that was shared with me by Rabbi Steven Sager and hence is a gift from both of us. 

Derekh Eretz Zuta (5:4) teaches: 

הדר תורה – חכמה  The adornment of Torah is wisdom 

הדר חכמה – ענוה The adornment of wisdom is humility 

הדר ענוה – יראה   The adornment of humility is awe 

הדר יראה – מצווה The adornment of awe is doing mitzvot 

הדר מצווה – צניעות The adornment of mitzvot is modesty. 

As Jews we strive to beautify all that we do from Judaic art to offering meaningful teachings to living Torah. David, you beautify Torah with your wisdom. You beautify your wisdom with your humility. You beautify your humility with your awe of our tradition. You beautify your awe with your practice. You beautify your practice with your modesty. 

And I would add:  

“Hadar HUC – the beauty of HUC is the Jewish leaders who come forth from it: the rabbis, cantors, educators and professionals who bring that Torah into the world. And Hadar Tnuat Hamitkademet, the beauty of our Reform Movement is you. We will miss you as the one who stands before us shepherding our professors, our rabbis, our teachers, our leaders and our flock. 

Just as in the Midrash, Moses merited the leadership by chasing after God’s smallest of sheep that ran away and felt badly for its thirst and with sympathy and compassion lifted it up into his arms, I was most awed by the ways that during the depths of the recent recession, you watched over the sheep on each of our four campuses, responding to their needs and managing to keep each campus open and sheltered in the safety of your embrace. 

On a personal note, I watched my father lead the Reform movement throughout my childhood. I know firsthand the stress such leadership places on personal relationships and on physical health.  I know the daily sacrifices that are made. David, I thank God that you have made it through with your health intact and pray for you and Jackie and your 5 kids to be blessed with a lot of retirement time to rejoice in the fruits of the orchard you have planted. 

David, We will miss you as the one who stands before us shepherding

our professors, our rabbis, our teachers, our leaders and our flock. 

Zecher tzadik livrachah – may the memory of the righteous always be a blessing.

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