Reform leader Rabbi Aaron Panken: ‘The best of us’

Reform leader Rabbi Aaron Panken: ‘The best of us’

This week marks the end of the shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning for my amazing friend and teacher, Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A licensed pilot, Aaron died tragically at age 53 when his light plane fell from the sky May 5 while on a routine flight check with an instructor. 

In my lifetime, I have conferred with legendary leaders and studied with eminent scholars, but I have rarely engaged with a man who had the spiritual depth, strategic vision, and Jewish vitality of Rabbi Panken. Aaron was on his way to becoming the most effective thought leader in American-Jewish life. Or perhaps he was already there.

Trained in electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, in the rabbinate at HUC-JIR, and in Talmud at New York University, he knew how to analyze, repair, and make things happen. So he set out to do just that with Reform Judaism and, may I say, with the entire Jewish world.

Being authentically humble — a rarity in lofty circles these days — Aaron was not convinced at first that he should even apply for the presidency of HUC-JIR, the largest institution for the training of professional Jewish leaders in the world. He had already found rich fulfillment in his teaching. He understood that the Jewish people will flourish only if we have a substantial core of leaders — lay and professional — who are well educated in the traditions and values of our faith. At the same time, he expected every one of us, in our civic and personal lives, to live by the highest Jewish values.

That’s why two days before his death, he told the graduating class at HUC-JIR that “we now live in a world in which truth is distorted; basic institutions of American life like the press, the courts, the electoral system, the FBI; the beautiful mosaic of immigration that made this country what it is; the dignity and value of public leadership and civil service; egalitarianism and a woman’s right to choose; and so many others are threatened in ways we simply could not have imagined a few years ago.”

But Aaron never despaired. He reminded us that the destruction of the First and Second temples in Jerusalem, the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, and the Holocaust all led us to mourn, but not to abandon hope.

On the contrary, this is what he taught his students: “We are not a people of whiners, of those who say, ‘This is the end and there is nothing we can do about it.’ We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity.”

I have been in mourning from the moment I learned of Aaron’s death. And so have thousands who admired him, learned from him, and loved him. Especially his wife, Lisa; their children, Eli and Samantha; his parents, Peter and Beverly; and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken, spiritual leader of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan. At the funeral, his sister lovingly recalled the pranks he played, the jokes he cracked, and the funny faces he offered up.

In Numbers 20:29 we read: “And all the House of Israel wept for Aaron for 30 days.” On June 6, thousands of Aaron’s friends and students throughout North America, Israel, and other lands marked the end of their own 30 days of mourning with a period of study in his memory.

Aaron taught us that we must move on and reinvent ourselves.

That is what is happening at HUC-JIR. Our extraordinary cadre of faculty members, students, administrators, and lay leaders, guided by our interim president, Rabbi David Ellenson, has stabilized our ship and begun to steer us in directions that would make Aaron proud.

Aaron ordained the 100th Reform rabbi in Israel last November. He looked forward to the 200th — and that will happen.

Aaron fought for the day when all Jews — whether Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or secular and without regard to sexual orientation — will be able to celebrate Judaism in their own way in the State of Israel. He believed that no Jew should ever prevent another Jew from exercising his or her rights to pray peacefully in the manner he or she chooses. And that will happen.

Aaron celebrated a 30 percent increase in this year’s incoming rabbinic student class. He initiated strategies to respond to the rapidly changing Jewish landscape. He took steps to reinvent and grow all our programs — for rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and professionals to run nonprofits. And that will happen.

Aaron devoted a substantial portion of his presidency, with great success, to strengthening the fiscal foundation of HUC-JIR. He was planning for the day when no financial barrier would prevent any qualified Jew, irrespective of circumstances, from pursuing advanced Jewish studies. And that will happen.

The funeral for Rabbi Panken was attended by almost 2,000 individuals and was viewed via streaming by thousands more. At that gathering, Rabbi David Stern, quoting Rabbi Michael White, said of Aaron: “He was the best of us.” 

Let us, who admired his character and vision, his playfulness and gentility, try to become the best that we can be. He wanted us to be smarter, more compassionate, and just. If we can do that, Aaron’s extraordinary life will continue to bless each of us and enrich all of amcha, the Jewish people.

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