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We who are given the gift of life, no matter how short or long it happens to be, do best by imbuing its every moment with meaningful actions that are complete, whole, and innocent. If we can have the strength to do so (and it is far from easy), then we, too, can one day face death with deeds that speak to our life's goodness and the way we lived it well.
-- Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, z’l
Over the weekend, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s seminary, announced that President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., age 53, died tragically in the crash of a small plane he was piloting on Saturday, May 5. He served as the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history.
Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades, and we are profoundly saddened by his untimely death. Within our archives we have found numerous articles, blog posts, and other materials authored by Rabbi Panken that offer ample evidence of his inspiring scholarship, leadership, humility, humor, and menschlichkeit.
It is our hope that through this compilation of some of his wisdom, he may be a teacher to us all.
In an interview for Reform Judaism magazine shortly after Rabbi Panken was installed as president of HUC-JIR, he shared this reflection about majoring in electrical engineering and why he transitioned to a career in Jewish life:
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.
Rabbi Panken first joined the HUC-JIR faculty in 1995, and taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature, continuing to teach even after the HUC-JIR Board of Governors elected him president in 2013. In this webinar, he shares his expertise in Jewish writings generated during the period between the destruction of the First Temple and that of the Second Temple (586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.), that led to new kinds of literary production that set the tone for Midrash and Talmud that followed.
An ohev Yisrael, a lover of Israel, much of Rabbi Panken’s writing focuses on this love. "Finding Unity in a Jerusalem Bomb Shelter" reflects on a unique and meaningful experience in an Israeli bomb shelter, and an op-ed in The Forward, “Why Are Israelis Lashing Out at Reform Jews?” expresses his desire for Reform Jews “to gain equal recognition and allow each and every human being the expression of personal religious ideals in freedom, respect and safety.” He expresses similar sentiments about equality – for Americans this time – in “No One’s Ancestry is Greater Than Anyone Else’s,” written several months after the 2016 presidential election.
Last December, Rabbi Panken addressed the Union for Reform Judaism 2017 Biennial convention, eloquently describing the critical role HUC-JIR alumni play in advancing an array of URJ initiatives, as well as endeavors in several of the Reform Movement's nearly 900 congregations in North America.
Rabbi Panken also once wrote the weekly commentaries for the 12 parshiyot in the Book of Genesis for the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah series. In his absence, may we take comfort now in reading his words of Torah:
May Rabbi Aaron Panken’s memory be for a blessing, now and always.
The funeral service for Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z’l, will take place on Tuesday, May 8, at 1 p.m. at Westchester Reform Temple. A live webstream of the service will be available.