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Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D, was interviewed by the editors of Reform Judaism magazine on the occasion of his assuming the presidency of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on January 1, 2014. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Reform Judaism magazine: You have just been elected to one of the top leadership positions in the Reform Movement. Would you describe yourself as one who has come up through the ranks?
Rabbi Panken: Very much so. It all began when I was in the fifth grade. Inexplicably, one afternoon as I walked home from school in Manhattan, I entered the Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Amsterdam Avenue.
“I’d like to go to religious school, I told the receptionist. The next thing I knew, the cantor appeared and asked, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to go to religious school,” I repeated. “That’s lovely,” he said. “Could I talk to your parents about that?”
Sitting me down later that day, my parents said, “Aaron, we’d prefer you go to a place where what they teach is a little closer to what we believe.” And so, starting at age 11, I attended religious school at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I became a bar mitzvah there; eventually became president of CRaFTY (the New York City region of NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement), and went on to spend summers at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA, where I met my wife Lisa.
From then on, it was clear to me that I was going to be thoroughly involved in Jewish life.
Yet you majored in electrical engineering.
Yes. The systematic approach involved in engineering has always fascinated me. When you have a problem to solve or want to design something new, you plan, build, test, and revise. Eventually, you have a working product that actually does what you would like it to do. This careful process of planned innovation carries you from nascent idea to functional outcome. I try to bring this methodology to everything I do.
What, then, led you to pursue religion?
Though I was doing fascinating work in two biological engineering labs at Johns Hopkins Medical School, designing small computer systems that helped analyze neural control of the kidneys and supporting cardiovascular experiments, I realized that as an engineer, I would be spending the vast majority of my time in a laboratory with at most two or three other people. I wanted meaningful learning and the kind of interactions with people I’d enjoyed during my Jewish youth group days. I also felt that something else was missing – something I could only describe as “real work” within a community. So the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I decided to find a position in the Jewish community to test out if this might be a path for my life.
As a youthful-looking 19-year-old, I applied to be regional youth director of NFTY’s Mid-Atlantic Federation of Temple Youth. They hired me on the condition that I grow a beard; otherwise, they said, the 14-to-18-year-olds I would be advising might not take me seriously. I grew the beard and got the job.
How long after that did you decide to apply to rabbinical school?
After two years, I came to the conclusion that the rabbinate was the right path for me – it offered precisely the right combination of community involvement, intellectual challenge, teaching, and pastoral care.
So I applied to HUC-JIR and began my studies in Jerusalem in 1986.
Rabbi Panken was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1991 and received his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. As a rabbinical intern and rabbi, he served at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY, before going on to serve the College-Institute in a succession of leadership roles: faculty member, dean of students, dean of the New York campus, vice president for strategic initiatives, and as president, until his tragic death in a plane crash at age 53.