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Farewell: Trials & Triumphs

After being part of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for 40 years—first as a student at the New York campus, then a faculty member in Los Angeles, and for the past 12+ years as HUC-JIR president—I will step down as president on December 31, 2013. Yet, my soul is forever bound to this institution and the sacred mission that animates it—the training and education of religious, communal, educational, and intellectual leaders for the Reform Movement and the Jewish people.

As president, I have tried “with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might” to fulfill my responsibility to our community with compassion and respect, with intelligence and love. Sometimes that has meant making difficult decisions. For example, early in my presidency, in 2001, the second intifada was raging and terror reigned on the streets of Israel. Many people expressed serious concern about the HUC-JIR requirement that all North American students spend their first year of study in Jerusalem. They felt that this prerequisite unjustifiably endangered the lives of our students, and urged us to suspend or cancel our policy.

I decided to stand by our Year-In-Israel program, for it is the pillar upon which the educational formation of our leaders rests. Whatever the dangers, I was—and remain—convinced that our students’ journeys to Jewish leadership are not solely individual religious quests. Rather, each journey emanates from the teaching, “Kol yisrael ’a-reivin zeh ba-zeh— all Jews are mutually responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a). Being a rabbi, cantor, educator, or Jewish communal worker requires that a Jew internalize an ethos of peoplehood—of solidarity with the Jewish people—and this internalization cannot happen if students do not experience the miracle of Jewish national rebirth in the land of Israel.

Still, I spent many a restless night worrying about our students’ safety, and in my first two years in office I traveled to Israel more than a dozen times to be with them. Thankfully, none of our students were harmed.

In 2008–2009 we faced a second trial: a $10 million deficit, representing about one quarter of our overall budget. I personally received 10,000+ letters, e-mails, and messages urging me to close one of our three stateside campuses—and virtually every message ended with the proviso that the one to be eliminated could not be New York, Cincinnati, or Los Angeles. Indeed, hundreds of rabbis and temple presidents stated explicitly that if a particular campus were closed, or even if a program were curtailed on that campus, they would withdraw their URJ membership and organize other congregations in their region to follow suit. The attachment to our campuses as regional centers of Reform Judaism was so absolute and fierce that closure was not a viable option.

As a result, in 2009 our Board of Governors adopted “The New Way Forward,” a plan designed to allow HUC-JIR to attain financial sustainability while maintaining quality academic programs on every campus. The plan has been a success. Through cost-cutting, sales of excess property, and significant fundraising, we now have a balanced operating budget and a nearly quadrupled endowment, from approximately $50 million in 2001 to almost $200 million today.

Challenges certainly remain. That is the nature of life. However, our sacred mission endures. I am grateful that Rabbi Aaron Panken has been selected to succeed me. HUC-JIR will prosper under his able direction, and I am confident that the Reform Movement will advance through the vision that he and URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs will realize in the years ahead.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.