December 10, 2019

Remembering Rabbi Aaron Panken

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), died in a plane crash on May 5. He was 53.

At around 9 a.m. that day, the New York State Police responded to a report of an airplane crash about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan in Orange County, N.Y. Panken, a certified commercial pilot, was piloting the Aeronca 7AC aircraft, which took off from Randall Airport in Orange County.

His only passenger, flight instructor Frank Reiss, suffered a non-life-threatening injury. A Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing.

Panken led HUC-JIR’s four campuses, in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York. He was elected in 2013 as the 12th president in the Reform seminary’s 143-year-history.

HUC-JIR released a statement on May 5 saying Panken was a distinguished rabbi, scholar and Reform leader. “Rabbi Panken strove for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening HUC-JIR as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” the statement read.

“When piloting, he felt great awe and unique closeness to God. The only solace in this tragedy is he died doing something for which he had great passion.” — Rabbi Robert Levine

The release also included a prior statement from Panken himself saying, “For me, Reform Judaism has always symbolized what I consider to be the best of Judaism — firmly rooted in our tradition, yet egalitarian, inclusive of patrilineal Jews and intermarried families, welcoming to the LGBT community, politically active, and respectful of other faiths and ideologies.”

Panken was born in Manhattan on May 19, 1964, to Beverly and Peter Panken. He grew up in the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City, where he headed the synagogue’s youth group.

He graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s electrical engineering program and earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

In 1991, he received ordination at HUC-JIR in New York. That year, he became an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. He also took up flying lessons.

“He came back excited every time,” Rabbi Robert Levine of Rodeph Sholom said in a statement on the synagogue’s website. “There was a strong spiritual component to this activity. When piloting, he felt great awe and unique closeness to God. The only solace in this tragedy is he died doing something for which he had great passion.”

In 1995, Panken joined the HUC-JIR faculty, serving as dean of students from 1996-1998; dean of the New York campus from 1998-2007; and vice president of strategic initiatives from 2007-201

He also became acquainted with HUC-JIR faculty and students in Los Angeles, said Rabbi Sarah Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at HUC-JIR.

Benor was among the more than 70 HUC-JIR faculty members, students and others who attended HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus at USC for a minyan in Panken’s memory on May 7.

Panken knew everyone’s names as well as those of their spouses, children and pets, Benor said. He had a talent for “making them feel like they’re important.” She added his death was “such a loss for the HUC community, for the Jewish community and the whole world.”

Madelyn Katz, associate dean at the Los Angeles campus at HUC-JIR, knew Panken for 36 years. Speaking at the memorial, she revealed a different side of Panken. She said they met in the summer of 1982 at the Joseph Eisner Camp Institute for Living Judaism. The then-18-year-old audiovisual worker had “bright red curly hair, red cheeks and was full of life.”

Katz remembered how one day Panken dressed up as E.T. and led 600 kids at camp to the movie theater on a hay wagon to see the blockbuster film.

“He made things light and fun and kept you in that moment,” she told the Journal.

Joshua Holo, dean of the HUC-JIR L.A. campus, told the Journal at the event, “[Panken] had an amazing mind and raw intelligence for grasping problems.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Emerita Karen Fox, an instructor in practical rabbinics at HUC-JIR L.A. said she met Panken when he was a “NFTY kid,” referring to the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform movement’s youth arm. He was “bright, inquisitive and incredibly funny,” she said.

Fox said she would remember Shabbat dinners with Panken in New York arguing about “politics, Jewish life and what the rabbinate might be. He had a lot of hope.”

Rabbi Ruth Sohn, director of the rabbinic mentoring program at HUC-JIR, met Panken in 1982. She was in her final year of rabbinical school and Panken was a senior in high school. At that time, he was running the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue youth group.

“What I’ll remember is his leadership, his terrific sense of humor. He was such a sweet kid. He would always ask about the family. He was so devoted to what we were doing, with such deep-seated optimism,” Sohn said.

On May 6, one day after Panken’s death, HUC-JIR New York held its 2018 ordination ceremony at Temple Emanu-El. Los Angeles native Tarlan Rabizadeh was among the graduates. She told the Journal that when she heard of Panken’s death, she thought the ceremony should be postponed. However, she said, “The faculty’s response was, ‘We don’t put off simchas.’ Many times you have a wedding in Judaism and someone has died; you can’t put off the wedding. But how can you make the wedding [or ordination] a way that respects these feelings?”

On May 8, Rabizadeh, 32, drove to Panken’s funeral at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. She said continuing on her path toward the rabbinate fulfilled Panken’s legacy.

“The way we [can] honor him is to continue to follow through with what we want to do, and become strong Reform leaders in the world,” she said.

At the time of his death, Panken had nearly 25 years of flying experience under his belt. In a video released by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement, Panken said he flew both powered aircrafts and gliders.

In the series, “One Minute of Wonder,” featuring Jewish leaders providing anecdotes of wisdom, Panken said his experiences with flying had heightened his faith in God.

“What I’ve realized in this is the extraordinary beauty of the world God has created,” Panken said. “When we read the creation story and we learn the sense behind what it means to have the world be created by God, we realize just what an extraordinary gift it is for human beings to exist on this earth and the incredible gift we have to be able to fly like birds.”

Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; his children, Eli and Samantha; his parents, Beverly and Peter; and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, N.J.

This article was edited to correct the date of the ordination ceremony in New York. It originally said the ceremony was held May 7, two days after Panken’s death. In fact, the ceremony was held on May 6, one day after his death.