Denominations: Are They Good For The Jews?

Two scholars question the contemporary relevance of the still- young American Jewish denominations.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Forward.

A new president of the Hebrew Union College‑Jewish Institute of Religion was inaugurated in a moving ceremony held October 13 [2002] in the ornate Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. Rabbi David Ellenson, a native of Newport News, Va., and a long‑time resident of Los Angeles, spoke from the pulpit of this classic Moorish‑style temple about the unique challenges of leading an American rabbinical seminary into the 21st century.

On one level, Ellenson seems to be an odd choice to lead the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is more a scholar than an administrator or fundraiser, more a teacher than a pulpit rabbi. But even more significantly, Ellenson defies denominational classification: born and raised in an Orthodox home, he has written extensively on Modern Orthodoxy, with particular interest in the role of halachic [Jewish legal] responsa in shaping its contours. Along with his wife Jackie, who is also a rabbi, he spent many years in Los Angeles as a pillar of the Library Minyan of Conservative Temple Beth Am. And for nearly three decades of his life, he has been a professor at the Reform HUC.

The audience assembled at the Plum Street Temple was unperturbed by Ellenson’s denominational eclecticism. Rather, they took ample note of the new president’s erudition, as well as his legendary kindness and compassion. A smaller number of cognoscenti also marveled at the historical journey of the Reform movement in the United States.

To illustrate the point, a brief digression to culinary history is in order. In 1883, the first class of rabbinical ordinees was graduated from the HUC. The festive ceremony that marked the occasion, the first ordination of any rabbinical seminary in the United States, was held in the same Plum Street, or Bene Yeshurun, Temple.

Following the ceremony, a gala dinner was held that drew representatives from more than 100 synagogues across the country, members of the eight‑year old Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

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David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at the University of California in Los Angeles.

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