This past weekend, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s seminary, announced that President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., age 53, died tragically in the crash of a small plane he was piloting on Saturday, May 5. He served as the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history. What follows is the eulogy Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered at Rabbi Panken’s funeral earlier this week.
I first met Aaron Panken at HUC-JIR in the late 80s when I interviewed him to be my rabbinic intern at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. Based on his resume, I tried to figure out what he was like; a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins? Really? If I was looking for a guy to run the AV equipment maybe, but I also saw that he played guitar, had been a NFTY advisor and so much more. This guy was either a complete misfit or he was one extraordinarily multi-faceted human being.
In five minutes, I knew I was in the presence of a brilliant and immensely personable future leader of our people. And when I learned that Rabbi Jack Stern had just interviewed him to be the rabbinic intern of Westchester Reform Temple (WRT), I knew there was no chance he’d take our job. And, as a former WRT intern myself, I told him he’d be crazy to work with anyone other than Rabbi Stern. I knew at that moment that if I was really lucky one day, I might get to work closely with this remarkable person.
The Torah teaches that: “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breast piece of decision over his heart….” (Ex 28:29)
Midrash Tanchuma elaborates: “When Aaron had to make a decision regarding a fellow Israelite, he was to consult not only the rule book but his heart as well….” (Tanchuma Sh’mot 27)
Aaron Panken was cut from the same cloth as our ancestor; the depth of his heart matched, if not exceeded, the breadth of his brilliant mind. In the past few years Rabbi Panken has not only recruited, taught, mentored, ordained, and graduated a new generation of Jewish leaders, but, more significantly, he has modeled for each of them how to live a Jewish life of depth and integrity, embodying instead of merely espousing our Torah’s timeless teachings. Greatness and goodness flowed forth from this remarkable man.
I was blessed to have Aaron as a close friend and, until six years ago, to be the rabbi of his family’s congregation. It was on this bimah that Aaron dazzled WRT with incisive and provocative readings of our sacred texts, especially the Book of Jonah each Yom Kippur. It was here that Eli and Sam lovingly received Torah from their parents and grandparents and at URJ Eisner Camp and on our URJ EIE Heller High semester in Israel they deepened their own Jewish journeys. Before I had the chance to work with Aaron, I had the supreme blessing to work closely with his amazing wife Lisa Messinger during her years as president of WRT. Lisa, by the way, was very timid at first and I take pride in having helped her come out of her shell.
Fast forward. I was invited to lead the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and in 2014, Aaron became the president of HUC-JIR. What a blessing it has been to work so closely with Aaron. There was only one other time when the Union and the College were more closely aligned and that was at the beginning, when Isaac Mayer Wise held both positions simultaneously.
Aaron Panken didn’t enter our Reform Movement through the front door. Three weeks ago, at our Scheidt Seminar in Atlanta, Aaron shared with 87 incoming congregational presidents how he came to Reform Judaism.
He shared: “It all began when I was in the fifth grade. Inexplicably, one afternoon as I walked home from school in Manhattan, I entered the Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Amsterdam Avenue.”
“I’d like to go to religious school,” I told the receptionist. The next thing I knew, the cantor appeared and asked, “How can I help you?”
“I’d like to go to religious school,” I repeated. “That’s lovely,” he said. “Could I talk to your parents about that?”
Sitting him down later that day, his parents, Peter and Beverly, said, “Aaron, we’d prefer that you go to a place where what they teach is a little closer to what we believe.”
And so, starting at age 11, Aaron attended religious school at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. Rabbi Sally Priesand, our movement’s first woman rabbi officiated at his bar mitzvah and the rest is as they say history. Thank God we didn’t have our specialty camps back then because Aaron would have been a stand out at 6 Points Sci-Tech and Lisa would have been a champion at 6 Points Sports, but luckily, they found each other at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA.
Aaron knew from his experience and his vision that Reform Judaism is truly a movement, not merely a collection of organizations and his leadership covered every part of it. You could have dropped him into any role anywhere in our movement – camp, campus, youth group, pulpit, scholarly seminar, social justice rally, Israel, chaplaincy, you name it; he possessed all of God’s leadership gifts especially humility and kindness.
Aaron didn’t just write about justice. In March 2015, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Panken spoke in Selma, Alabama, in front of 400 activists, including Reverend William Barber, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Peter Yarrow, Rabbi Jonah Pesner and host of other leaders in the battle for equality. Aaron said:
We remember the period’s frightening moments when unabashed hatred battered the good and robbed people of life and opportunity; when authorities who we looked to for leadership, morality and fairness used their immense influence for evil and not for good, and when the powerless suffered mightily at the hand of those who held them down.
And Aaron’s love of Israel was full throated and constant. The new Taube Family Campus at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem represents his deep commitment to expanding and intensifying the place of Israel in our movement.
When 16-year-old Shira Banki was murdered during the Jerusalem Pride march three years ago, Aaron reached out to the Banki family and in partnership with the U.S. embassy created a program that brings together teachers and their young students to learn about the different groups living side-by-side in Jerusalem. These educators who are Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, religious and secular, have to face the fear of the “other,” the stereotypes, and sometimes the hatred. Aaron knew it was not enough to hope for peace.
This past November during the HUC-JIR Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem, Aaron ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi, signaling the transformative impact the College-Institute has had in shaping a more inclusive and pluralistic Israel. Aaron has modeled sacred partnership with the College-Institute’s lay leadership and especially with his board chair, Andy Berger. Andy and Aaron were always in synch, always deeply respectful of each other.
And if you think Aaron was only a gentle, mild mannered individual, you should have seen him assertively carry a Torah scroll past the security guards as we entered the Kotel (Western Wall) plaza to finish our celebratory prayer service in honor of the four newest Israeli ordinees. Not only did Aaron proudly carry the Torah, he plumbed its deepest layers and lived its most demanding imperatives.
Our tradition commands us: “Raise up many disciples.” (Pirkei Avot 1:1)
Many attempt, and some succeed but only a few, including Rabbi Aaron Panken, have their disciples spread out around the world. Pirkei Avot doesn’t only want many disciples; it specifies which kind; it says, “Be disciples of Aaron.”
And how do Aaron’s disciples conduct themselves? Do they only sit in the academy studying all day and night?
No, the disciples of Aaron spend their days “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving their fellow creatures and bringing them close to the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12)
Today, this sanctuary and our movement overflow with the many disciples of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, especially Aaron’s beloved sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken. The biblical Aaron and our Aaron inspire us to bring many others to the deep water of Torah and from there, find strength and inspiration to pursue peace and love all of God’s children – not just the ones who are just like us. Indeed, that was Aaron Panken’s way. May we all be disciples of our Aaron; may we never stop teaching and living his Torah.
In the Talmud, there are some sages who are simply irreplaceable: “Woe to those who are lost and cannot be replaced.” (Sanhedrin 111a)
Today we are the ones who are lost, and Rabbi Aaron Panken is the one who cannot be replaced.