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Three short (or maybe long) weeks ago I celebrated from the balcony at Congregation Emanu-El in New York City as my 56-year-old sister received a master’s degree in education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). It had been a long journey for her, begun 25 years ago in New York, interrupted for a long stretch by geography, and completed back in NYC. The excitement, happiness, and sense of accomplishment in the sanctuary was palpable, as it is at most graduations.
Not a single one of us sitting in that sanctuary could have imagined that less than 48 hours after that celebratory moment, our entire Jewish community would be traumatized by the incredibly untimely death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of HUC-JIR. I didn’t personally know Rabbi Panken. I had learned from, and been inspired by, him at Biennials and other large gatherings, but had never taken that next step of introducing myself to him.
It always seemed like he had more important things to do than meet me, a semi-random person in the community. I now know, deep in my heart, that I was wrong. As I have read the moving words of so many, it is pretty clear that he would have welcomed the opportunity to meet me, and we would have quickly discovered the zero degrees of separation between us, and the ways in which our paths might have overlapped in the past, present, and into the future.
It is not that he would have connected with me because of anything special about me. Rather, it is because that seems to be how he treated everyone. It seems that he truly related to all the people around him, from the highest-level leaders to the youngest and newest – and all those in between. It is clear to me that no matter how much is written about him, there will always be so much more to say about the powerful relationships he developed and nurtured with family, colleagues, and friends. I, unfortunately, don’t have anything meaningful to add to those tributes, although I encourage all of us to continue to read them and learn from them.
However, what I haven’t yet seen expressed, and what I want to express, on behalf of myself and, I suspect, on behalf of so many others, is incredibly deep appreciation to all the rabbis, cantors, educators, and many others throughout North America, and around the world, who have somehow, in the midst of tremendous trauma and loss of their own, continued to do their “work,” taking care of “us,” the members of their communities. They have celebrated joyous life cycles, conducted funerals and shiva services, visited the ill, sat in circles with preschoolers, confirmed their confirmands, graduated their seniors, participated in board and annual congregational meetings, taught classes, written bulletin articles, and celebrated their staff. The list goes on. And on. And on. As it always does.
We, as community members, don’t often stop and think about how our leaders stay fueled and energized to do what they do, how they stay focused on their missions, how they take such good care of us. It is clear to me that Rabbi Aaron Panken taught our leaders in both big and little ways. In classes and in conversations. In serious ways and in fun loving ways. He inspired them to stay rooted in Talmud and tradition and, at the same time, to push forward. Having done so, his impact continues and will continue to echo throughout the Jewish community from generation to generation, as the leaders that he inspired will inspire the next generation of leaders, and that generation will do the same with the next.
However, we have to do our part as well. My hope is that one of the ways we, as the community-at-large, can continue his legacy is to ensure that we enable our clergy and our educators to continue to learn, to find meaning, to be inspired, and to have fun, so that they, in turn, continue to strengthen our roots and wings, ensuring we all grow and flourish as a Jewish community. May Rabbi Aaron Panken’s memory be a blessing to us all.