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Rabbi David Ellenson dies; former president of Reform seminary and widely admired mentor was 76

(JTA) — Rabbi David Ellenson, who served for 12 years as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and mentored a generation of rabbis and scholars as a historian, adviser and confidant, died Thursday morning at age 76.

The cause was a heart ailment, according to a spokesperson for the Reform movement flagship.

A renowned scholar in his own right — whose interests ranged from the origins and development of Orthodox Judaism in Germany to the relationship between religion and state in Israel — he was known and admired among such a wide circle of colleagues and students that the New York Jewish Week tagged him “everyone’s favorite rabbi” when he stepped down as president of HUC-JIR in 2013.

“It is impossible to overstate David’s importance to the Jewish People, Reform Judaism and to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in particular,” Andrew Rehfeld, the current president of HUC-JIR, said in a statement. “His scholarship and depth of knowledge were world-renowned, and his humility, warmth, generosity of spirit, and deep concern for each individual inspired all of us who had the privilege to know him. I feel blessed to have had him as a friend and mentor and will miss him dearly.”

A raft of tributes flowed in upon news of Ellenson’s passing, which came as a shock even to those who knew him well. He had attended an event celebrating another rabbi just the day before his death.

“He was one of the kindest people I ever knew,” wrote Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, where Ellenson taught rabbis in its summer programs and recently joined its research center in New York as a senior fellow. “This is no small thing in general but is downright extraordinary for a person whose life was in leadership and lived in public.”

Rabbi Rachael Klein Miller, associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, wrote that she came into the rabbinate inspired by Ellenson’s writings in Jewish ethics, although “through my time at HUC I was much more inspired by the genuine kindness and engaging teachings of this Reform Movement giant.”

Even rabbis who weren’t ordained at HUC or didn’t know him well wrote of his influence and example. Rabbi Tali Adler, who is on the faculty of New York’s Hadar Institute, said she had never met Ellenson but that over the summer he had taken a few of her classes online and sent her a handwritten note thanking her. “There was no reason he had to take his time to find out how to reach me and write to me personally,” she wrote. “No reason but the exceptional kindness and love of Torah that everyone who speaks and writes about him knew so well.”

As president of HUC-JIR, Ellenson made a year of study in Israel for rabbinical students a priority, even during the violent second intifada. He also shepherded the institution — which had campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and New York — during the financial crisis of 2008 and ’09. In 2009 HUC-JIR considered closing two of its three U.S. campuses but staved off such moves until 2022, when its board of governors decided to close the rabbinic program in Cincinnati and enroll all rabbinical students at HUC’s campuses in New York and Los Angeles.

Under Ellenson’s stewardship, HUC-JIR expanded the role of women on its board of governors and regional boards of advisors, according to the school. During his tenure, HUC-JIR expanded professional leadership through a variety of fellowships, and introduced new distance learning initiatives.

He also led efforts among Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders to ease the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate’s grip on religious ritual in Israel and expand acceptance and funding for non-Orthodox movements there.

Rabbis David Ellenson, left, and Eugene Borowitz, the influential Reform theologian, in 2009, on the occasion of the latter’s 85th birthday. (Courtesy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

In 2018 he returned as interim president after his successor, Rabbi Aaron Panken, died in a plane crash. At the time, Ellenson had just concluded a tenure as director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, a position he held starting in 2015. At Brandeis he also served as a visiting professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

Rehfeld was appointed president in 2019, and Ellenson became chancellor-emeritus.

David Ellenson was born in 1947 and grew up in an Orthodox family in Newport News, Virginia. At a tribute dinner in 2014, Skip Vichness, a lifelong friend and former board chair of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, recalled growing up a few blocks away from Ellenson and how the two skinny kids played for the local JCC basketball team. When the team won the local championship, said Vichness, the headline in the southern town’s daily newspaper read: “Upset Of The Year: Jews Win.”

Growing up in the small community, Ellenson recalled in a podcast interview in 2018, he observed “the tensions between what I would call a commitment to Jewish tradition and Jewish identity on the one hand, and a desire to participate fully in the larger world on the other.” He came to the conclusion that Reform Judaism, which does not accept that Torah is the literal word of God, appealed to him as “an ongoing narrative where each generation of Jews writes a different story in which they attempt to capture what it is they feel that God commands in their age.”

Ellenson received a bachelor’s degree at the College of William and Mary in 1969 and a master’s degree in religious studies at the University of Virginia in 1972.

He received his Ph.D. in 1981 from Columbia University, where the eminent Israeli historian Jacob Katz guided him to the study of modern responsa — rabbinic opinions that applied Jewish law to changing social conditions. Having embraced the liberal Reform movement, and after undertaking an unusually intense program of study, he was ordained as a rabbi by HUC-JIR in 1977.

Prior to his appointment as president in 2001, he spent some 30 years at HUC-JIR as a student and faculty member.

“My soul is bound to this institution and to the holy mission that animates it,” he wrote in 2013. “It has been the greatest privilege to devote my life to this school.”

In decades of scholarship, Ellenson invariably focused on the conflicts and possibilities for reconciliation “Between Jewish Tradition and Modernity,” the title of a book of essays collected in his honor in 2014.

One of the most enduring questions he posed in his scholarship, wrote David N. Meyers in his introduction to the volume, was “whether to err on the side of leniency in order to allow for a larger and more inclusive Jewish community or to hold fast to established exclusionary norms.”

In 2011, in an interview he gave soon after becoming HUC’s president, he spoke about applying his scholarly interests to the challenges of reaching Jews on the “fringes” of Jewish life.

“The challenge of our age — at least in America — is that Jews are accepted to such a degree that, unless we respond with compelling initiatives, Jews will disappear in even larger numbers in what is, after all, a voluntaristic society in which we are highly acculturated and overwhelmingly accepted,” he said.

For two decades, Ellenson served as head of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California under the aegis of HUC-JIR. He also served as a visiting professor at both UCLA and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative movement flagship.

In 2015, New York University appointed him as distinguished visiting professor in the Skirball Department of Judaic Studies.

Ellenson wrote or edited seven books and over 300 articles and reviews. His book, “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity,” won the National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought in 2005. “Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (1990) and “Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law, and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa” (2012) were nominated for book awards by the Jewish Book Council.

Ellenson is survived by his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson; his children Ruth Andrew Ellenson, Rabbi Micah Ellenson, Nomi Ellenson May, Rafi Ellenson, a Hebrew College rabbinical student, and Hannah Miriam Ellenson, a rabbinical student at HUC; and four grandchildren.

He is also survived by the countless friends he attracted and nurtured, a hallmark of his leadership.

“While some first-rate academics find human contact rather inconvenient, David Ellenson thrives on people,” wrote Robert Levine, then senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, in a tribute to Ellenson published in the Reform movement’s journal in 2014. “They are a great source of oxygen to him. Just as David reads material once and owns it forever, he also meets someone once and has a friend forever. His ability and need to meld his intellectual and personal talents make him among the most impressive and memorable leaders our Movement has ever produced.”

The post Rabbi David Ellenson dies; former president of Reform seminary and widely admired mentor was 76 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas

[Illustrative] Harvard University students displaying a pro-Palestinian sign at their May 2022 graduation ceremony. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

A group of ten Harvard University alumni filed a lawsuit against the institution on Wednesday, accusing it of “devaluing” their degrees through permitting and fostering an environment of antisemitism, support for terrorism, and anti-Israel sentiment. 

Filed in a Massachusetts federal court, the alumni claims that Harvard has breached an implicit contract with its graduates, promising to maintain the institution’s prestige, which they allege has been compromised due to a toxic campus environment. This, they argue, has led potential employers and prestigious law firms to distance themselves from Harvard alumni.

“Harvard has directly caused the value and prestige of plaintiffs’ Harvard degrees to be diminished and made a mockery out of Harvard graduates in the employment world and beyond,” the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit argues that the university’s administration has failed to combat campus anti-semitism, and has consistently overlooked assaults on Jewish students and calls by students and faculty for the annihilation of Israel. It highlighted, among other things, an open letter signed by more than thirty student organizations blaming Israel for the October 7 Hamas-led attack, and campus protests which included chants like “Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: intifada revolution!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!”

The suit also points to then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she stated that calls for genocide against Jews would only violate bullying and harassment policies “depending on the context,” as indicative of the school’s tolerance of antisemitism.

The lawsuit is part of a growing dissatisfaction among graduates over what they perceive as rampant antisemitism on U.S. campuses, according to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of legal aid group, Shurat HaDin, who is representing the alumni alongside New York-based lawyer, Robert Tolchin.

Darshan-Leitner criticized the colleges for becoming “hate centers” under the guise of academic freedom. 

The lawsuit, Darshan-Leitner said, reveals the “growing outrage and contempt that graduates all across the US are feeling over the wild antisemitism and hate speech being encouraged and explained away on the American campuses.” 

“This dangerous weaponization of higher education by radical faculty and students as well as the impotent administration response, all justified under the guise of academic freedom, has turned the colleges into hate centers which has greatly devalued their reputation and diplomas,” she said, adding that the suit could prompt similar actions from graduates of other institutions.

Tolchin accused the university of succumbing to “the flavor of the month, the lowest level of discourse.”

“Harvard’s seal proclaims “Light and Truth” in Latin and Hebrew–yes, Hebrew, the language spoken by the indigenous Israelites. Yet light and truth have been hard to find at Harvard. The darkness of antisemitism and the dishonesty, hate, and discrimination have cast a pall over Harvard so embarrassing that people do not wish to be associated with Harvard,” Tolchin said. 

Harvard has been accused of facilitating an educational environment that is unwelcoming to Israelis and Jews for years, with the lawsuit citing annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week” and incidents targeting Jewish students and symbols on campus. 

Antisemitism expert Dara Horn, a Harvard alumnus who was asked to join Gay’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, authored a damning essay published this week in The Atlantic in which she detailed the Jew hatred on campus predating October 7. 

She noted that staff members “who grade Jewish students used university-issued class lists to share information about events organized by pro-Palestine groups;” In one instance, a professor continued teaching after rejecting the findings of an investigation by Harvard after he was found discriminating against several Israeli students. Last spring, a student was asked to leave because her identity as an Israeli was making her classmates “uncomfortable.”

She also pointed to courses themselves “premised on anti-Semitic lies”, pointing to one called “The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health”, and noted that lecturers invited to speak at the campus included some who peddled in blood libels that Israelis harvest Palestinians’ organs or that the IDF uses Palestinian children for weapons testing. 

“The mountain of proof at Harvard revealed a reality in which Jewish students’ access to their own university (classes, teachers, libraries, dining halls, public spaces, shared student experiences) was directly compromised,” Horn writes.  The alumni’s legal action comes alongside another lawsuit filed by six current Harvard students on January 10, claiming that the university has not done enough to combat antisemitism on campus which had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” It also comes a day after a professor at the university, Walter Johnson, resigned from two anti-Zionist campus groups after they posted antisemitic cartoons.

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Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7

Eden Alene, winner of the reality show “The Next Star to Eurovision,” during finals in Neve Ilan studio near Jerusalem on Feb. 4, 2020. Photo: Shlomi Cohen/Flash90.

Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar sent the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) a letter on Thursday urging them to approve Israel’s submission to the Eurovision song competition, after the EBU called it “too political.”

“As you know, the State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult and complex periods since its establishment. We lost our loved ones, and there are women, men and children who are still held captive by a terrorist organization,” Zohar said.

Israeli media reported that the broadcasting union would not approve the song, called “October Rain,” after a number of countries even issued threats to boycott the event if Israel participates. The EBU issued a statement saying “We are currently in the process of carefully examining the lyrics of the song – a process that is confidential between the EBU and the Public Broadcasting Corporation until a final decision is made. To all broadcasters, they have until March 11th to officially submit their songs. If a song does not meet the criteria for any reason, the corporation will be given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, according to the contest rules.”

“The song that Israel sent to the Eurovision Song Contest was chosen by a professional committee made up of well-known names in the local music and entertainment industry,” Zohar added. “It is a moving song, discussing renewal and revival from a very fragile reality of loss and destruction, and describes the current public mood in Israel these days. We see now most clearly because our lives – as one, united society – manage to overcome even the greatest suffering. This is not a political song.”

Despite the news that the song by Israeli singer Eden Golan would not be approved, The CEO of KAN, Israel’s national broadcasting service, and the body that approves the song, Golan Yokhpaz, said “We will not change the words or the song, even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year.” Adding “The Israel Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) is in dialogue with the EBU regarding the song that will represent Israel at Eurovision.”

Zohar said later in a television interview “The songwriters, KAN, and the singer will have to make the decisions at the end of the day… I do think that Israel should participate in Eurovision because it is important for us at this time to be represented there, and to express ourselves throughout Europe.”

Speaking to the EBU, he said, “We trust that you will continue in your important task of keeping the competition free from any attempt at political manipulation.”

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UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’

UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine Francesca Albanese, October 27, 2022 (Photo: Screenshot)

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories referred to Israelis as “colonialists” who have “fake identities” while quoting another Twitter/X account on Wednesday, raising questions about the impartiality of the international body.

Francesca Albanese responded to a long post by Alon Mizrahi, a far-left activist, arguing that the reason many Western nations support Israel is that they are colonial projects. 

She highlighted the following quote from Mizrahi: “free Palestine scares them [Westerners] bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities.”

” free Palestine scares them bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities..”

— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) February 21, 2024

The original post claimed that “All colonial powers work together to guarantee the supremacy of made-up identities over genuine, native ones. Because if this model breaks anywhere, it will collapse everywhere.”

Mizrahi argued that “A Palestinian state would be a major, major moral blow to white, Western colonialism.”

The tweet was met with immediate condemnation.

David Friedman, who served as the US Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump wrote that her tweet was “Exhibit A why the UN is a failure and why we no longer belong in that bastion of hypocrisy and corruption.”

An account documenting Hamas’ October 7 atrocities asked, “If Israel is indeed a ‘colonialist project’ Where should all the Israelis go if this project should be dismantled?”

The perception of UN bias against Israel has also been boosted by the fact that, in 2023, Israel was condemned twice as often as all other countries combined.

It is not the first time Albanese has made comments that raise eyebrows. Earlier this month, in response to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron calling the October 7 attack “largest anti-Semitic massacre of the 21st century,” she said “No, Mr. Macron. The victims of October 7 were not killed because of their Judaism, but in response to Israel’s oppression.”

Following backlash, she wrote that she opposes “all racism, including anti-Semitism, a global threat. But explaining these crimes as anti-Semitism obscures their true cause.”

Hamas’ founding charter, in a section about the “universality” of its cause, reads: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Albanese has also argued that Israel should make peace with Hamas, saying that “It needs to make peace with Hamas in order to not be threatened by Hamas.” 

When asked about what people do not understand about Hamas, she added, “If someone violates your right to self-determination, you are entitled to embrace resistance.”

The post UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’ first appeared on

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