At a funeral service at Westchester Reform Temple overflowing with attendees and emotion Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi David Stern, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalled his friend, Rabbi Aaron Panken. He described him as brilliant, kind, and compassionate, with a sense of wonder that resulted in his traveling the world. “He was most at home in the sky and in the water,” Stern said, noting his friend’s love of flying and sailing. “He has fallen from the sky, and our hearts are broken.”
Panken, an experienced pilot and sailor, died last weekend at the controls of an Aeronca 7AC aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Randall Airport in Orange County, N.Y.
Stern; Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a longtime professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (who taught and later was a colleague of Panken); Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the movement; and family members eulogized the 53-year-old president of HUC, who served in his post for the last four years.
They noted how Panken, whose college degree was in electrical engineering and doctorate was in the Talmud, somehow combined the intellect and precision of a scientist and scholar with the warmth and caring of a spiritual leader. “He was a rabbi who could put things together,” Stern said, not just machines but broken hearts as well. “He was the best of us.”
Jacobs noted that of all Panken’s remarkable qualities, most evident were “humility and kindness.”
During Panken’s presidency, he strengthened the ties between HUC’s four campuses, worked to increase the quality and quantity of the school’s student body and teaching staff, steered the addition of new technology to the 143-year-old institution, and brought a spirit of renewal to the institution and beyond.
Though initially attracted to engineering, Panken later said he was drawn to the rabbinate because he loved Judaism and Jewish life and he wanted to help people.
“Aaron was,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote this week in his Religious News Service column, “the sweet prince of our movement…a man of eternally boyish enthusiasms.”
Hoffman’s celebratory retirement dinner for his 45 years of teaching liturgy, worship, and ritual at HUC was postponed this week in the wake of Panken’s death. In his eulogy, he noted that Panken had been planning to address the graduating class of rabbinic and cantorial students of HUC on Sunday. The basis of the talk was the phrase seen on the arks of many synagogues: “Know before whom you stand.”
Panken’s message: Be prepared to stand up for what is right.
“We will complete your sermon…and remember who was doing the standing,” Hoffman said. He vowed that Panken’s students and colleagues would do all in their power to ensure that their teacher and friend’s work and dreams were not in vain.
May his memory be a blessing.