December 15, 2018

Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute, Dies In Plane Crash [UPDATED]

UPDATE ON MAY 6: Funeral services for Rabbi Aaron Panken will take place on Tuesday, May 8, at 1:00 pm at Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), 255 Mamaroneck Road, Scarsdale, NY. A live webstream of the service will be available on the WRT website at

For those in the Los Angeles area, a gathering to mourn the loss of Panken will be taking place at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, at 3077 University Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90007, on Monday, May 7, at 4 p.m., according to an email sent out by Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR.

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

Panken was the twelfth president of HUC-JIR in the Reform seminary’s 143-year-history.

CBS New York reported that Panken, a certified commercial pilot, was piloting an Aeronca 7AC aircraft, a lightweight, single-engine and two-seat plane with one passenger onboard on Saturday morning. He took off at Randall Airport, a public use airport in Orange County, New York, and had not been in the air long before he crashed into a wooded area.

The cause of the crash, which occurred just after 9 a.m. on Saturday, was unknown as of press time.

Panken’s passenger’s suffered a non-life-threatening injury, CBS reported.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident.

Panken has led HUC-JIR’s four campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York, since Jan. 1, 2014. The educational institution and seminary for Judaism’s largest denomination trains rabbis, cantors, educators and nonprofit management professionals. The school’s 4,000 active alumni serve the Reform movement’s 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations.

The HUC-JIR board of directors named Panken as president in the summer of 2013. His previous positions at HUC-JIR included dean of students, from 1996-1998; dean of the New York campus, from 1998-2007 and vice president of strategic initiatives, from 2007-2010. He joined the seminary’s faculty in 1995 and taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature.

HUC-JIR described Panken as a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher and leader of the Reform movement, who was committed to religious pluralism in Israel—he ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi graduating from HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical program in November 2017. He was devoted to inspiring future generations of Jews and in strengthening’s Reform Judaism’s commitment to progressive values, HUC-JIR said.

“Rabbi Panken strove for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening HUC-JIR as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” the HUC-JIR statement said.

The HUC-JIR press release quotes Panken as 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.”

The New York City native was ordained in 1991 at HUC-JIR in New York, earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and was a graduate of Johns Hopkins electrical engineering program. He was involved in a number of Jewish communal organizations, including the Wexner Foundation, Reform Judaism Magazine, the Birthright Education Committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

“The membership of Central Conference of American Rabbis is devastated to learn of the tragic and untimely death of our friend, colleague, teacher, and leader, Rabbi Aaron Panken,” CCAR said in a statement.

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, NJ.

The funeral arrangements were being finalized as of press time.

Panken was slated to appear at Bel Air synagogue Stephen Wise Temple on May 10 for a panel discussion on Reform Judaism.

Rabbis, rabbinical students and Jewish community organizations have responded with shock to the news of Panken’s death. Many have taken to Facebook to write about the ways the rabbi touched their lives.

Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger said she and Panken’s paths often crossed as they navigated the world as Reform rabbis.

“So deeply saddened by the tragic and untimely death of the Rabbi Dr Aaron Panken the president of our seminary,” Eger said on Facebook. “I’ve known Aaron since we were Rabbinic students. I had the privilege and honor of serving on his Board of Governors as CCAR president. We often travelled together finding ourselves going to the same meetings and on the same planes. Your wisdom warmth and teaching and leadership will be missed. My deepest condolences extend to his wife Lisa and children and his entire family.”

On Facebook, Temple Judea Rabbi Sam Spector said the most moving moment of his ordainment ceremony was a one-on-one moment he enjoyed with Panken.

“Rabbis are supposed to be the moral exemplars to their communities. One of the things that made Rabbi Panken a great leader to his students was that he served as our moral exemplar,” Spector said.

“He was a mensch and charged me and my fellow colleagues to set the world afire,” Loyola Marymount’s Jewish Student Life Rabbi Zach Zysman said.

“I want to add only that I experienced Aaron as one of the most ardent exponents of our College-Institute and its mission,” Joshua Holo, dean of the L.A. campus of HUC-JIR said in statement. “He tirelessly, even relentlessly, pursued his sole focus: the success of our holy work. In this and in his many other qualities, I can only express utter admiration and loss.”

This article was updated on Sunday evening to provide the funeral information and the details about the Los Angeles gathering and to include a statement from Joshua Holo.