I am one of the many people who was so fortunate to fall within the orbit of David Ellenson, a person of the most remarkable generosity of spirit.
I say this because my advocacy over the years pushed on two issues that were complicated for the head of Hebrew Union College – rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples, and admission of rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships.
Despite my pushing, and I’m sure some differences of opinion, he became a supporter, and a friend.
We first met in June 2006 when InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors) was an exhibitor at a CCAR convention in San Diego and really scrapping for attention. I excitedly reported to a colleague afterwards that I had handed the president of Hebrew Union College an invitation to a reception and information session that we sponsored, and that he had come!
At some point, though, after Rabbi Ellenson was quoted in a publication as reiterating HUC’s policy not to admit rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships, I wrote a letter to the editor criticizing that position. Rabbi Ellenson had argued that that rabbis should be role models; I said what a great role model it would be for interfaith families to see a rabbi who was intermarried.
In March 2008 I wrote an op-ed for the New York Jewish Week emphasizing the importance of interfaith couples being able to find rabbis to officiate at their weddings. That April, I was invited to a reception at which CJP’s Barry Shrage and Rabbi Ellenson spoke. I wrote David a long email in advance, discussing two studies that had recently come out that showed the positive impact of rabbinic officiation on future Jewish engagement. At the session, Rabbi Ellenson spoke at some length about how he had been approached by four families that week asking him to speak to children who were intermarrying. He mentioned InterfaithFamily’s work several times. I followed up with some resources we were developing, which he said he would surely use.
In March 2010, I attended another CCAR convention as an exhibitor. This I will not forget – Rabbi Ellenson introduced me to his wife Rabbi Jacqueline Ellenson by saying that I was “doing God’s work” – and she said she had used InterfaithFamily’s website and resources for a wedding in her own family.
In October 2015, InterfaithFamily hosted an afternoon of learning, and an evening reception honoring Barry Shrage, and me on my retiring as CEO. I was incredibly honored that Rabbi Ellenson spoke at the program. He sent me an outline of his remarks ahead of time – he said that our work had made a positive difference to interfaith couples received a welcoming attitude in contrast to the rejection of the past. And he outlined the remaining challenge – how to include interfaith couples and families while maintaining integrity of the Jewish community – how to maintain a Judaism of hospitality and authenticity.
In his outline Rabbi Ellenson referred to InterfaithFamily as an “Institute.” I thanked him for the promotion, saying we hadn’t been called that before; with his characteristic humor, he replied, “Institute? Organization? What’s in a name?”
I am sorry to say that my last contact with Rabbi Ellenson was five years ago. I asked if he would write an endorsement for my book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and he agreed. Stuart Matlins had advised me that Rabbi Ellenson was probably the single most highly regarded leader who the desired audience of my book would look up to. So, at the top of the cover of the book, Rabbi Ellenson’s blurb appears: “Must reading for Jewish laypersons as well as Jewish communal and religious leaders. Vital for all who are concerned about the future of Jewish life in North America.”
Since the news of Rabbi Ellenson’s untimely death I’ve seen many well-deserved tributes from many corners of the Jewish world. We have lost a truly great leader. I send sincere sympathy to his wife and children and their families.