Remembering Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, 12th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Z”L


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute (HUC-JIR), died tragically in a plane crash on May 5, 2018, at the age of 53. He served as the 12th President in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history.

Dr. Panken led the four-campus international institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR’s campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York provide the academic and professional training programs for the Reform Movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offer graduate programs for scholars of all faiths. HUC-JIR’s 4,000 active alumni serve the Reform Movement’s 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations, representing the largest Jewish denomination in North America, and the growing Progressive Movement in Israel and around the world.

Funeral services will take place on Tuesday, May 8, at 1:00 pm at Westchester Reform Temple, 255 Mamaroneck Road, Scarsdale, NY. We are coordinating bus transportation for the HUC-JIR community, leaving from HUC-JIR/New York at One West Fourth Street, New York, NY 10012 at 11:00 am, and returning to HUC-JIR/New York following the funeral. Registration is required to ensure we have enough buses. Please register at by 5:00 pm on Monday, May 7. A live webstream of the service will be available on the Westchester Reform Temple website at

Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades. As a product of the Reform Movement’s camps, youth movement, and seminary, his passionate commitment to Reform Judaism, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people worldwide inspired his efforts to ensure HUC-JIR’s academic excellence in fulfilling its sacred mission. As HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Panken implemented his transformative vision by forging strategic planning initiatives: embedding new technology in support of student learning and administration, strengthening recruitment to yield the largest incoming classes in a decade, launching new Jewish education, nonprofit management, and entrepreneurship programs and academic partnerships, and invigorating the ties linking HUC-JIR’s four campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York and their larger communities and regions. He was a staunch advocate for religious pluralism in Israel and was proud to have ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi graduating from HUC-JIR’s Israeli Rabbinical Program on November 16, 2017. It was his vision to renovate and transform the Jerusalem campus into a dynamic educational and cultural center for the larger public. He exponentially increased the number of Israelis studying for the rabbinate, as educators pastoral caregivers, and interfaith teachers for tolerance on the Jerusalem campus.

Rabbi Panken was elected HUC-JIR President by the Board of Governors on July 31, 2013. His appointment was effective on January 1, 2014 and he was installed on June 8, 2014 in Cincinnati. Ordained by HUC-JIR in New York in 1991, Rabbi Panken previously served as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives (2007-2010), Dean of the New York Campus (1998-2007), and Dean of Students (1996-1998). He joined the HUC-JIR faculty in 1995, and taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature, with research interests in the historical development of legal concepts and terms; narrative development; and development of holiday observances. His publications included The Rhetoric of Innovation (University Press of America, 2005), which explored legal change in Rabbinic texts, the newly published, co-edited Engaging Torah: Modern Perspectives on the Hebrew Bible, and articles in leading academic journals and scholarly volumes.

Rabbi Panken strove for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening HUC-JIR as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide, with its renowned faculty of scholars and thought leaders and internationall y recognized library, archive, and museum research resources. Rabbi Panken stated, “Our mission is to help our students grow into authentic Jewish thought leaders, able to articulate and advance their own visions of a rich Jewish life for a new and rapidly changing religious landscape. We are shaping a compelling message that will have an impact on the largest denomination of Jews in North America and the growing Progressive Jewish community in Israel and worldwide.”

An ardent supporter of Reform Judaism in Israel, Rabbi Panken said, “As the only North American seminary with a full campus and programs in Israel, we are uniquely positioned to influence both Israeli and North American society, and to ensure that the relationship between these two great centers of Jewish life continues and thrives. We will work hard to improve the understanding and integration of Reform Jews worldwide with our Jewish State and with all our global partners.”

An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Dr. Panken earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He was on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the Editorial Board of Reform Judaism Magazine, and served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the Birthright Education Committee, the CCAR Ethics Committee, and in a variety of other leadership roles within the Reform Movement and the greater Jewish community. He lectured widely at academic conferences and synagogues throughout North America and as visiting faculty at universities in Australia and China. Prior to teaching at the College-Institute, he served as a congregational rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City and as a rabbinical intern at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. A native of New York City who graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s Electrical Engineering program, Rabbi Panken was a certificated commercial pilot and sailor.

At his inauguration convocation, he said, “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.”

Rabbi Panken most recently presided over the New York Graduation Ceremonies on May 3, where he said, “Our celebration comes, this year, amidst a particularly challenging and painful world, one that in many respects transcends anything I have seen in my lifetime. 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 mere two years ago. We see countries long civilized reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times. We labor under the challenges of privacy and the ability for noxious leaders to spread their message ever more broadly and more efficiently through warped use of social media, cynical and often violent supremacist protests, and through targeting innocent immigrants as vicious criminals. But here’s the thing: the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again. We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity.”

He added, “The work of our alumni continues to make an enormous difference in our world. When tragedy strikes, in Parkland and Houston, in the Caribbean and Charlottesville, in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa, our alumni are there. For Syrian and Iraqi immigrants, in congressional offices fighting for sensible gun safety, in hospitals and in classrooms, in innovative synagogues and new communities everywhere, our alumni are there. There is nothing in the world that makes me prouder, and nothing can make me more certain of the extraordinary Jewish future we have ahead of us, than knowing who they are and what they are doing, and seeing how they have produced the next generation of committed, learned Jews, through their hard work and their wisdom.”

Rabbi 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.

Even as we mourn the loss of our colleague, teacher, and friend, the vision that Rabbi Aaron Panken brought to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion remains a source of hope and comfort to those who mourn and the Jewish community. Rabbi Panken’s family requests donations in his memory be made to help fulfill Aaron’s vision for his beloved HUC-JIR at or by mail to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, One West Fourth Street, New York, NY 10012.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America’s leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.

National Hadassah News!

Women’s health is a much-discussed topic in Washington, DC, as inexcusable maternal mortality rates and gaping disparities in preventable health issues — such as heart disease –– stubbornly remain the status quo.

That’s why on Wednesday May 16 at 10 am, you should watch the second annual Women’s Health Empowerment Summit live on Hadassah’s Facebook page. Presented by the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity (which Hadassah founded) during National Women’s Health Week, you won’t want to miss these timely discussions with trailblazers on caregiving, mental health and gender, and the importance of including women in clinical trials.

To follow up on a powerful Summit, members will spend Thursday on Capitol Hill meeting with federal legislators to discuss women’s health equity, including pending legislation.

Hadassah members will also call on Congress to:

  • Eliminate the Dickey Amendment, which prevents any CDC funding to be used toward the study of firearms or gun control, and allocate funds to this essential research (H.R. 1832)
  • Advocate supporting Holocaust education through the Never Again Education Act (H.R. 1474) and supporting the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Act of 2017 (H.R. 1911 | S. 1292).

If learning about the incredible people working to advance women’s health equity moves you to action, make an appointment in your home district with your federal legislator for a Day in the District. Hadassah National is here to help every step of the way, email

In Memoriam of Rabbi Aaron Panken

Dear members, 
I wish to share with you the sad news about a remarkable Rabbi of our Reform movement who tragically died this weekend. His exemplary life is reviewed in this moving testimony below. May his deeds and the memory of his life be a blessing to us all.
Yossi J Liebowitz Rabbi
“And if he is a sage … everyone is like his relative, everyone mourns together …” (Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 25a)

“When a president dies – we all rend our clothes in mourning” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 9:15)

The leadership of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, its rabbis and members are saddened by the tragic death of our teacher and friend Rabbi Prof. Aaron Panken of blessed memory, President of our Seminary for training Rabbis, Educators and Communal Workers in North America and Israel – Hebrew Union College, Institute of Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Panken, a scholar of the literature of the Second Temple and Chazal, had been at the head of Hebrew Union College for the last four years, bringing with him a spirit and vision of love of Torah and love of Israel, intellectual depth, pedagogical innovation, striving for academic excellence, and personal exemplary commitment to the future of Reform Judaism and the future of the entire Jewish people. Under his leadership, the College continued to be the leading institution for the ordination of rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and community leaders in North America, shaping the future of North American Jewry.

Rabbi Panken z”l held a clear love of Zion, was fluent in Hebrew and was familiar with the events in the State of Israel and in Israeli society. Rabbi Panken was wholeheartedly dedicated to the strengthening of Reform Judaism in Israel by nurturing the Israeli rabbinic leadership and generations of young Israelis who view the Israeli Reform Rabbinate as the realization of a life of Zionism. Rabbi Panken maintained the glorious tradition of his predecessors by developing the HUC Jerusalem campus, and by continuing to require students from the Diaspora to experience a full year of study in Israel, and as the first and leading institution for the certification and ordination of liberal rabbis in Israel. In November 2017, Rabbi Panken ordained four new rabbis in a moving ceremony in front of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, thereby bringing the number of Israeli Rabbinical graduates of the Israel program of HUC to more than 100.

We share the deep sorrow of the Panken family: his wife Lisa, his children Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter, his sister Rabbi Melinda Panken, and his sister-in-law Daryl Messinger (chairwoman of the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism), and the entire family.

We mourn together with all of the colleagues, friends and disciples of Rabbi Panken in North America and throughout the Jewish world.

May there be a flourishing and nurturing of the Reform Rabbinate in Israel, and the promotion of the values of pluralism, religious tolerance, Torah study and Tikun Olam in the State of Israel and throughout the Jewish world as a legacy to Rabbi Panken’s leadership and teaching.

“We are saddened by those who have gone and are no longer with us” (Sanhedrin Tractate 111; 1)

Reuven Marko – Chairman of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism
Rabbi Gilad Kariv – President and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism
Words in memory of Rabbi Panken from colleagues and students:

Rabbi Michael Marmor, Dean of the College in Jerusalem and a member of the faculty: “To all his many loved ones and admirers, Aaron was an exemplary rabbi and friend. He was a young and vital man who believed that our Torah was the Torah of life, and he wanted to live every moment in its entirety. He was a wise and profound man who combined Torah knowledge with openness and curiosity. He was a loyal, devoted and supportive friend. Above all, Rabbi Panken was a family man whose love for his family knew no bounds. We have been working together for twenty years, and the shock of his sudden demise is still great.”

Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, Chairman of the Council of Advanced Rabbis in Israel and member of the faculty: “Aaron was a friend and partner, a guide and a leader. In his quiet and welcoming way, he guided the college and gave us, in Jerusalem, the promise that our enterprise is an essential and important part of this fabric. In fluent Hebrew and out of love for a burning and honest Israel, he also knew how to express concern about many developments in Israel, and held a strong belief in the possibilities of repair and construction. From far and near he was a full partner in the construction of the family of the Israeli Reform Rabbinate. So many members if the Jewish community, in Israel and out, had the privilege to be ordained by him and to receive, at the moment of their ordination, his profound and inspiring blessing. It was good to share the path with him, to clarify disputes and to join hands for the sake of Klal Yisrael. Aaron symbolizes for me the new horizons of Reform Judaism around the world and the tremendous opportunities that arise in Israel. It is difficult, very difficult, to talk about this man of the future and his vision in the past tense; it is permissible, necessary even, to believe that his light will continue to shine even after his death. יהי זכרו ברוך.”

Rabbi Talia Avnon Benvenisti, head of the Israeli Rabbinate program: “Rabbi Panken was one of the architects of the idea of Jewish liberalism. He devoted his life to a new Jewish thought in which morality and ethics were the basic foundations of modern Jewish existence. Rabbi Panken was an ardent supporter of the Reform Zionist rabbinic leadership and was committed to preserving the State of Israel whenever necessary. His quiet and gentle spirit has transformed young rabbis in Israel and the world, and his legacy will remain forever engraved on their hearts.”

Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways

Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways

B’HAR – B’CHUKOTAI, LEVITICUS 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34


Hands lifted to hold the sunlight

Freedom is an ideal for humanity that we constantly strive to reach. In 1986, Elie Wiesel (z”l), on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, said:

“As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”1

To be truly free is to possess the human power to choose to live by the rules that bind us. To be free of any rules is to be lawless; therefore, the rules that bind us should, at best, hold us fast to principles and ethics that lead us to our greatest human potential. For Jews, the rules that bind us are Torah. Milton Steinberg, writing for the Traditionalist and Modernist, as he categorized them (us), explained:

“Torah becomes everything which has its roots in the Torah-Book, which is consistent with its outlook, which draws forth its implications, and which realizes it potentialities. Torah, in sum, is all the vastness and variety of the Jewish tradition.”2

In Torah this week we read B’har/B’chukotai, a double portion that brings us to the end of Leviticus. In B’har, we find the famous verse, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10). Inscribed on the Liberty Bell with the word “freedom” instead of “release,” it, nevertheless, connotes the expectation that humanity thrives in places where freedom from hunger, redemption from bondage of any form, and release from tribulations unleash our greatest human potential. Freedom from toil reflected in the weekly Sabbath and cyclical Jubilee year, were chief among the commandments that the Israelites would observe in order to know God’s greatest blessings.

Not unlike our Israelite ancestors, we are also bound to the covenant of teachings and laws within which we seek God’s favor and blessings over the course of our own lifetime. In B’chukotai (Leviticus 26:3ff) we read, “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments…” then God will cause you to prosper and be blessed.

Our Sages responded. They knew well that prosperity and blessings flowed from God, but they also observed suffering despite faithfulness to God’s covenant. They cited Job, who suffered blamelessly. We find, “His days are determined; You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). (Midrash Tanchuma, B’chukotai 1).3 In citing Job, they raised the question: what, if anything, would forestall the end of our days if all was, indeed, foreseen, and if our days were limited even when we did God’s commandments?

Our Sages affirmed their faith that all life is a gift from God. They embraced what was revealed to them by God, and what they could do with what was revealed to them. Rather than be disillusioned about what remained concealed from them, they grasped for opportunities to do mitzvot, to respond to God’s command, and to know that, even when judgment came instead of mercy, it was God’s will, too. They cited God’s goodness to King Solomon, even above that which God gave to his father, David, “And I grant you also what you didn’t ask for, both riches and glory all your life … and I will further grant you long life, if you will walk in My ways and observe My laws and commandments…” (I Kings 3:13).4

Leviticus ends with a list of curses. “But if you don’t obey me…” (Leviticus 26:14), begins the list of ways that God will spurn the Israelites if they fail to keep faith. Today, biblical injunctions and admonishments have lost their sway over us, whether we’re Traditionalist or Modernists. Instead, we’ve learned from rabbis like Harold Kushner, who taught us in his ubiquitous book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” that instead of expecting from God what we thought we deserved, God also grants what we didn’t know was available in addition. Life is hard, and when (not why) it hurts, we can seek and find compassion, unconditional love, and lessons for living. They are God’s “riches and glory,” too.

In “Gates of Prayer” we read, “Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”5 Freedom from that prison doesn’t come from seeking immortality; rather, freedom continues to be the privilege to choose the rules that will bind us. As Jews, we still choose to bind ourselves to the b’rit, the “covenant” that God made with our ancestors and with us for “our life and the length of our days” (Deuteronomy 30:20).

Now, at the end of the Book of Leviticus, we say, chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other.” As one book closes and another book opens, our studies of the Bible continue. We have been taught to learn so that we may teach. Let us be teachers of our sacred texts that the world may hear our words, benefit from our deeds, and be inspired by our hopes.

Thank you for joining me in the Book of Leviticus. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik!

1 Elie Wiesel, acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, December 10, 1986
2 Milton Steinberg, “Basic Judaism” (NY: Harvest, 1947], p. 22)
3 Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat B’chukotai 1
4 Ibid.
5 Gates of Prayer (New York: CCAR Press), p. 625


May Yarhzeits

5/1 Louis Reimer

5/1  Jack Tobin

5/2  Jack Steinbrock

5/4  Elizabeth Reemes

5/5  Sara Hecklin

5/5 Marthe Heymann

5/5 Fishel Steinbrock

5/7 Meyer Liebauer

5/7  Stephen Werner

5/8  Edith From

5/10 Harry Price

5/10 Abel Simon

5/10  Joel Spigel

5/11  Gussie Levy

5/12  David Packer

5/13 Minnie Perlman

5/14 Ernest Emory

5/14 Dr. Simon H. Smith

5/14 Pauline L. Smith

5/14 Samuel Weiner

5/15 Dorothy Brett

5/15 Hyman Greenfield

5/15 Jerry Hyder

5/15 Susan R. Wise

5/15 Rabbi Max S. Stauber

5/16 Jides Koser

5/18 Barry Goldman

5/18 Elizabeth Nabow

5/18 Morris Unger

5/18 Isadore Usiskin

5/20 Mildred P. Gelburd

5/21 Hazel Abelsky

5/21 Yakov Feldman

5/21 Ethel Silnutzer

5/22 Hattie Nadel

5/22 Samuel Shapiro

5/22 Rose H. Smiley

5/23 Nathan W. Blumberg

5/26 Pauline Unger

5/27 Charles Rabiner

5/28 William Smith

5/29 Samuel Robinson

5/30 Rose Cohen

5/30 Jake Lurey

5/31 Minnye Weinberger

Upcoming Dates to Remember for May



2 Last Day of Hebrew School

4  Lag Ba-Omer Cookout

5  Saturday Service, Tisch with Rabbi & Carrie

6  Last Day of Sunday School

11  Kabbalat Shabbat with Dr. Mark Packer leading services

12  No Saturday Service

13  Mother’s Day

16 Hadassah Closing Meeting

18  Sisterhood Sabbath

19  Saturday Service

20  Temple Board Meeting

20 Yizkor Service & Blintzes

25  Kabbalat Shabbat

26  Saturday Service

Hadassah for May

Our closing meeting will be held on Wednesday, May 16 at 12 noon at Bangkok Thai Restaurant on East Main Street. Remember to bring your Tzedakah boxes. There will be a small prize for the person who has collected the most money in their box.

We hope everyone has a delightful summer, remember to use your sunscreen, and we will see you around the Temple.

Nancy Rosenberg

Rabbi Liebowitz in the Community

The Rabbi and Pastor Paul Harmon performed at a fundraiser for Spartanburg Ministries at St. John’s Lutheran Church on April 26.

The Spartanburg Interfaith Alliance along with The Spartanburg County Foundation and our Rabbi traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Pilgrimage of Peoples. Approximately 40 people visited the Holocaust Museum, the National Museum of the Native American, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.