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August 12, 2012 1:30 am

Reform Leader Seeks to ‘Go Beyond Denominations’

avatar by Peter Rothholz / JNS.org

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David Ellenson. Photo: Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

During a recent visit to three synagogues (two Reform, one Orthodox) on eastern Long Island, Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD—president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform movement’s seminary—sat down with JNS.org to discuss new developments in Jewish education and institutional life.

Regarding the future of his movement, Ellenson called the appointment of Rabbi Rick Jacobs as president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) an “exceptionally exciting choice that will propel the American Reform movement along a new trajectory well beyond synagogue walls.”

According to Ellenson, the vast majority of today’s Reform Jews are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants, but predominantly third and fourth generation Americans, and many are inter-married. The challenge then arises of how to make Judaism meaningful to such people who rarely, if ever, attend services, and eschew temple membership. Their connections to Judaism, if they have any, are likely to be in the increasingly popular online Jewish communities rather than in established institutions.

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With a nod to “the Rebbe’s army” of emissaries who have set up Chabad houses wherever Jews live throughout the world, URJ is planning to establish a so-called “Reform Jewish Service Corps.” It will be composed of volunteers whose goal is to reach out to Jews and engage them in programs and activities without membership dues or other formal requirements.

In the realm of education, HUC-JIR is also expanding its horizons. “We can no longer count on traditional models,” Ellenson said.

While training of rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators is still the primary mission of the HUC-JIR, a number of new initiatives are well beyond the planning stage. A recently introduced youth initiative for post bar and bat mitzvah youngsters is designed to further the education of these boys and girlsand keep them involved in Jewish living.

Ellenson explained that HUC-JIR, in cooperation with The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Bank Street College of Education, plans to offer a curriculum leading to a Certificate in Early Childhood Education. This program is scheduled to be launched in June 2013 and was created to expose even the youngest children to their Jewish heritage. It is but the latest example of ever-closer cooperation between the Reform and Conservative movements.

Even though non-Orthodox rabbis are not generally recognized in Israel, Ellenson said, since 2001 more than 60 Reform rabbis ordained by HUC-JIR are currently working in Israel and he expects this number to increase to 100 in the next few years. In spite of the fact that the Israeli government does not officially sanction them, Ellenson noted that Reform and Masorti (Conservative) rabbis currently conduct about 600 weddings in Israel a year.

While Ellenson was not optimistic that the Haredi community will change its opposition to recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis anytime soon, he was pleased that the Israeli government recently recognized and will pay the salaries of some 15 Reform and Masorti rabbis who are the sole clergy in their kibbutzim or other communities.

“I don’t want to be overly pollyana-ish,” Ellenson said, “because we’re still not at the point where Reform and Masorti are recognized.” Nonetheless, HUC-JIR is currently training more than 30 Israeli rabbinical students at its Jerusalem campus, and Ellenson expects that all of them will be placed in Israel upon their ordination.

“We live in one world, and in order to create a community of joy and meaning we must go beyond denominations,” he said.

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  • Jo Carroll Lewald

    .I have not had a chance to speak to Rabbi Ellenson since he officiated at my daughter’s wedding in California over 10 years ago, but our minds are clearly on the same path. Jews are Jews are Jews. Whether we pay dues to a synagogue, learn the ways of rightousness on the computer, daven or stand straight, we need to recognize and pray for peace together

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