As a child of the 1950s growing up in the small Jewish community of Newport News, Va., David Ellenson received both public school and Orthodox religious education.
Today he is one of the top leaders of the Reform movement, serving as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion since 2002. Ellenson is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Advanced Studies at The Hebrew University, both in Jerusalem.
On Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, he will address the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls on “Tomorrow’s Judaism: A Vision of Reform Judaism for the Future.”
He discussed his upcoming talk in a phone call with NJJN on Dec. 22.
NJJN: Can you explain what your vision is?
Ellenson: I will be talking about some of the major trends confronting the Reform movement. There is a tremendous rise in intermarriage and a lack of ongoing institutional affiliation on the part of many Jews and at times an increasing disaffection with Israel….
I think the Reform movement and liberal Judaism have been attempting to respond to these challenges. What is fascinating here is that despite all the challenges, I see synagogues all around the country quite vibrant, full of social action programs and Jewish values and causes. You have trends that move in opposite directions, with a group more firmly committed to Jewish traditions than ever before. The challenge is how the movement will respond in ways that will increase numbers. The vitality of the community will be tested by the ability to reach out to a more ethnically heterogeneous population than was true in an earlier day.
NJJN: Is that more true of Reform Jews than those in the other movements?
Ellenson: I think it is true of American Judaism in general. I think Reform is more open to meeting the challenge and more inclusive than might be true of the other denominations. Orthodox and Conservative Jews have more halachic commitments that make it more difficult to be as flexible. But having said that, there is movement among the Conservatives in these directions.
NJJN: Your latest work is After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity. What are the legacies of that 19th-century European movement for today?
Ellenson: From the onset of Jewish modernity in the 19th century, the great challenge has been how to one affirm one’s Jewishness and be modern, that is to say, be able to participate in the life of the larger world. In the 19th century, Jews were emerging out of a much greater insularity. Today, most American Jews are thoroughly acculturated and participate in the larger world.
The tension remains between Jewish traditions on the one hand and the larger values and valences of the modern world. My inclination is to look for those elements that unite Jews.
NJJN: What do you view as the most irreconcilable obstacles to that unity?
Ellenson: Most North American Jews have assimilated values of democracy, pluralism, and inclusion. I think there are certain elements of the Jewish world — I would call them some elements of the haredi Judaism — who do not share those values, and I think dialogue with them is difficult.
NJJN: As Israel has moved to the Right politically and the haredim have gained more power, has that become more threatening to support by some American Jews?
Ellenson: I do have a concern that certain stances taken by some elements of the Israeli population have a negative impact on the commitment American Jews have toward Israel.
NJJN: Are the Orthodox, both here and in Israel, gaining power at the expense of what you have described as a “humane liberal voice”?
Ellenson: No. I think there are a number of Orthodox rabbis who speak in a humane, liberal, sane voice. There are some people, though, who speak with different sorts of attitudes that are problematic, such as the attempt of some rabbis in Israel to forbid the sale or rental of property to Arabs. I am delighted to see there were a number of Orthodox rabbis who responded negatively to this proclamation. It is my hope that the democratic foundations upon which Israel rests will ultimately win out in the internal struggle.