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.”