Lessons in leadership from Rabbi David Ellenson, z”l

As the Jewish world mourns the loss of Rabbi David Ellenson, tributes are coming in from an astoundingly diverse array of individuals and organizations. All of us who were fortunate to know him remember not only his achievements but also his kindness and warmth, his beaming smile and laughter, his generosity and, most importantly, his menschlichkeit.

Scholars will explore his multifaceted legacy as a brilliant and loving rabbi, teacher and seminary president. He must also be remembered as a Jewish communal leader par excellence.

I experienced his approach up close when I began reporting to him in 2007 after he appointed me dean of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We served together through tumultuous times, and I learned life-changing lessons by observing him. David infused all his work with Jewish values and created visionary change by deftly integrating the hard and soft skills of leadership on a daily basis. He also taught me that a supervisor, while observing every proper boundary, can become a mentor, teacher and loving friend.

Today, as I teach a new generation of students preparing for Jewish professional leadership, David represents the kind of ideal professional with whom I hope my students will be fortunate to work and to which I aspire. He was a teacher of Torah, through both text study and the lived example of his daily conduct. Here is just some of the Torah I learned from him about Jewish professional leadership:

Infuse your work with Jewish values, bringing head and heart together

An influential thought leader with a keen intellect, David regularly put his ideas out in the world in ways that lifted HUC-JIR’s status in the broader Jewish world. A prodigious and internationally recognized scholar of Jewish thought and history who took maximal pleasure in academic research and writing, he also never shied away from penning opinion pieces for the Jewish popular press. Similarly, while highly sought after to deliver papers in academic settings, he much more frequently spoke in synagogues and at Jewish conferences across North America and Israel. As a result of his ecumenical and prolific engagement as both writer and orator, his influence permeated all levels of Jewish communal life.

David’s ideas and pluralistic approach did not map neatly on a right-left continuum, and he took strong stands over which, at times, surely even those closest to him disagreed. But he always welcomed new perspectives and enjoyed engaging in respectful, generative debate on any topic. His knowledgeable and outspoken stances on Israel and Zionism, progressive Judaism, Jewish feminism and women’s and LGBTQ rights elevated HUC-JIR’s stature in diverse circles and made all of us connected to the institution proud.

Place love and ahavat yisrael at center

For all his deep learning, it was David’s extraordinary ahavat yisrael — the deep love for the Jewish people he exuded at all times and which undergirded his many ideas — that truly powered his leadership. His pluralism stemmed from his love for klal yisrael. His Zionism rested on his love for the land and people of Israel. His love for Torah and learning fueled his teaching. He saw feminism and LGBTQ rights as the logical extension of his love for justice and equality.

Famous for crying openly in public settings, David taught me the power and effectiveness of unabashedly grounding one’s thoughts and deeds in love. In the workplace as well as the broader world, he showed, love and respect almost always engendered love and respect in return.

David performed numerous acts of love and self-sacrifice for the College-Institute. He did not seek the presidency but agreed to serve after his predecessor resigned over a serious ethical violation. Early in his term, when the Second Intifada broke out, David made over 10 visits to support our faculty, staff and students in Jerusalem, where bus and restaurant bombings were killing civilians week after week. And years later, following the tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, David came out of retirement to lead the College-Institute as interim president. He had been enjoying his emeritus position and the opportunity to teach and write in new contexts, resting assured that the seminary was in strong hands. But with our community grieving and in need of shepherding, David agreed to serve for the one reason that motivated him throughout his presidency: the institution that he loved needed him.

Master both the hard and soft skills of nonprofit management, and exercise these as an art, not a science

David led with keen emotional intelligence. I saw this most vividly in his approach to fundraising and staff supervision, where he placed human relationships at center.

David always regarded prospective donors as people he wanted to get to know, and he invested time and energy in doing so in a genuine way. As he learned about their work, families and priorities, they learned about his — including his vision for HUC-JIR and their capacity to help make that vision real. Not only did his personal approach consistently inspire generous gifts for the school, it also generated friendships with donors that David maintained long after stepping down as president.

Of course, on occasion he had to draw a hard line to protect a personal principle. In these situations, prospective donors as well as board members may have walked away in disagreement, but as far as I could tell they still paid him the respect he always accorded them. 

Early in our relationship, I knew David best as my boss. Reporting to him, I learned firsthand the power of believing in one’s staff, investing in them, and celebrating their successes. David appointed a team he trusted and then gave us great freedom to lead as we saw fit. His pluralistic approach extended to the meeting room, where he welcomed and even enjoyed disagreement (and we had plenty).

David was thrilled when I began a Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center while serving as dean, and he provided ongoing encouragement as I balanced a full-time job with full-time studies. The day I defended my dissertation, he showed up at the history department to celebrate. He later read my book manuscript, provided critical feedback and volunteered to write one of the blurbs. Once it was published, he enthusiastically urged people to read it.

David viewed my success as his success, our institution’s success, and our people’s success. I wasn’t unique in this regard, of course, and that’s the point — he invested deeply in countless HUC-JIR students, faculty and alumni, and in many others, too. Today, he would want all of us to pay it forward, for we, too, can make the Jewish world stronger by investing in the growth of our own students, staff and colleagues.

Notably, David could read a complex financial statement as well as he could read a room. During the economic downturn, our senior leadership read a lot of these. Behind closed doors, David paid close attention to the numbers, asked hard questions and often stated difficult truths — teaching me the importance of all of this along the way.

Embrace challenge and change

David deepened HUC-JIR’s academic excellence by strengthening the faculty with leading emerging scholars. He brought Debbie Friedman onto the cantorial faculty, which led to the renaming of the School of Sacred Music in Debbie’s memory. He added the pillars of social responsibility, community service and spiritual development to our curriculum, and his particularly strong advocacy for Israel engagement led to exponential growth of the Israel Rabbinical Program.

Meanwhile, beyond the seminary, thanks to his commitment to klal yisrael and pluralism, he strengthened our ties with other Jewish movements and faiths, as well as with the secular academic community.

David has left us too soon, at a time when our world needs him and his teaching more than ever. How do we continue his work? If all of us strive to model the Jewish values and approach to leadership Rabbi David Ellenson taught by example, our world will be stronger, wiser and filled with love.

May Rabbi David Ellenson’s legacy live on, and may his memory always be for a blessing.

Rabbi Shirley Idelson is director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.