7 Jewish Essays to Help Us Remember Fallen Soldiers

Gravestones with American flags in front of each one

Although Memorial Day – which Americans will observe this Monday – is not a Jewish holiday, the idea of remembering and honoring those who died in service to our nation is certainly a Jewish value. With that idea in mind, we’ve rounded up these stories and prayers to share with you ahead of the long holiday weekend.

1. 5 Jewish Readings for Memorial Day

Including both ancient and contemporary texts, this compilation of prayers and readings offers a selection to enrich your holiday observance.

2. Why I Serve in the Military

Although the two never met, Aaron Rozovsky shares why he thanked Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Heath Robinson, z’l, each week before Shabbat in Petoskey, Michigan.

3. Hatred and Bigotry Have No Place in “The Purest Democracy”

Rabbi Dan Bronstein, Ph.D., writes about Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, who, as a chaplain for the United States Marine Corps, delivered what became an historic eulogy, following Iwo Jima, one of the most devastating battles of World War II.

4. Rethinking Memorial Day

Rabbi Douglas Kohn reconsiders his own patriotism and relationship with the military in today’s America – and helps readers use a Jewish lens to do the same.

5. Yom Kippur in Vietnam

Mike Rankin, z”l, a military physician, shares his remembrances of a Kol Nidre service aboard a destroyer following a battle with the North Vietnamese Army that resulted in many deaths.

6. The Normandy Kaddish Project

Alan Weinschel recounts how a trip to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach reminded him of his responsibility – and ours – to remember these fallen soldiers by saying Kaddish for them annually.

7. From Battle to Metaphor: The Meaning of Waterloo in Modern Jewish History

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. writes about what connects the Battle of Waterloo – which took the lives of 26,000 souls in one day – and Reform Judaism.

May those we remember on this Memorial Day rest in peace and may we, taking to heart the teaching of the Prophet Isaiah, continue the sacred task of beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.

Raising Resilient Teenagers: Resources That Can Help

May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Barefoot young man sitting on floor against a wall, knees up with face tucked in and arms wrapped around his knees

Being a teenager is difficult. It is a time filled with all types of changes – biological and physical, social, emotional, and intellectual. What’s more, thanks to the expectations placed on them by society, parents, peers, and, frequently, the pressure they put on themselves, today’s adolescents are extremely prone to stress.

With days (and nights) filled with academics, extracurricular activities, sports, community service projects, religious studies, and homework it’s no wonder that today’s teens are more overwhelmed and worried about failure than their peers in past generations. All this pressure only drives teens’ desire for perfection and fuels their need to be the best – at everything – to keep pace with the competitive world of college admissions.

The number of teenagers who struggle with mental health issues increases daily. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least 20% of the teenage population has been diagnosed with conditions related to mental health. I can only imagine how many others face anxiety, depression, and other challenges that remain undiagnosed.

Despite its widespread presence, many of us still speak about mental illness in a whisper. Just as the word “cancer” made us uncomfortable in previous generations, the words “mental illness” often do the same to us today. Worst of all, they prompt negative stereotypes and stigmas, as well as judgmental, discriminatory, and exclusionary behaviors that can blind us to the Jewish concept that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of the Divine). Such behaviors, especially in light of the rash of school shootings in our country, can be culprits that prevent teens from seeking the help they may need.

In a similar vein, as last week’s Torah, B’midbar, reminds us, all of us count. Each of us is part of a greater whole and we matter. Our uniqueness is not simply what makes us human; it is the place in which we find our inner, divine sparks.

Of course, most of us understand that mental illness it is treatable – and, in fact, may have sought medication to help us better manage our own anxiety or depression. We are aware, too, that symptoms can be triggered by situational events or be part of a genetic or neurological disposition. Thankfully, our government recently has increased funding for the treatment of and education about mental illness.

And yet, much remains to be done.

I am hopeful that this month’s promotion of mental health awareness will remind us all that caring for each other is an integral Jewish value and that teens, in particular, need reassurance that they are not alone when facing strife. The ability to rebound from adversity and problem-solve in overwhelming or stressful circumstances are important life skills and it is crucial that teens develop them on the way to becoming successful and confident adults.

Although schools increasingly provide opportunities for teens to develop these skills, a sense of a meaningful, deep connection with Judaism also can help foster teens’ positive development. Of course, being Jewish is only one facet of identity, but when it meets individuals’ needs, it can be of tremendous value, especially during adolescence. It is our responsibility, then, to ensure that the Jewish community is a place of belonging and welcoming for teens and for all who seek a place in our midst.

These books and online resources may prove helpful in this critically important endeavor:

During Mental Health Awareness Month, and always, may our hearts be open, and may we be empowered to reach out to those who in their darkness, need more light. May we feel brave enough to share our own struggles with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.  And, may all of us feel safe, loved, and cared for, knowing that we are not alone.

Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month. For more information, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and other online resources.

Is There a Blessing for a Blintz?

Three blintzes on a plate garnished with peach slices and a dollop of sour cream

When you marry someone, you not only get a spouse, you also get another family. When I married my husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, I inherited his mother and father, his siblings, their children. I even inherited his grandmother: Jeannette Multer. Jeannette wasn’t “Nana” or “Bubbie” or “Safta” or “Gramma.” She was “Grandmother.” Grandmother. And the properness of “Grandmother” embodied who she was: exacting, precise, and at times a bit rigid.

But Grandmother was also a voracious reader (she had once owned a bookstore), an astute student of politics and world affairs, a lifelong, dedicated Reform Jew, and a passionate Democrat left-wing voter who wrote letters to politicians with whom she both agreed and disagreed. Her cooking was legendary and holiday tables were overflowing with family favorites: matzah farfel muffins and an almond torte for Passover, assorted fruit pies for Thanksgiving, an amazing sour cream coffee cake, and for Shavuotthere were Grandmother’s blintzes.

Shortly before Grandmother died, she shared the secret to the blintzes with me and my friend Rachel Andress-Tysch. We stood alongside Grandmother in her Beverly Hills kitchen and watched her mix and pour batter and flip from pan to plate the “bletlach” (Yiddish for crepes). Two, small aluminum steep-sided pans moved back and forth across the stove’s gas flames and with a quick “zetz” (Yiddish for smack or hit) to the pan’s handle the blintz turned.

“The first one you throw away…it’s greasy and it’s useless…but taste it, “she said.

It was light and airy and not too sweet. And as if we were in our own Food Channel episode, she taught Rachel and me how to make blintzes. The kitchen was perfumed with toasted butter as we poured and flipped and filled and rolled and fried again. We stuffed half the thin pancakes with a cream cheese-farmer cheese recipe and the other half were filled with Grandmother’s recipe for a cheese-less fresh fruit filling. And those crepes that were not perfectly round and browned – we sprinkled them with powdered sugar and devoured them standing around the stove.

At the end of the cooking lesson, Grandmother gave me a Nordstrom’s shopping bag. Inside were the two aluminum pans additionally wrapped in plastic bags: “You take them. Use them. Make blintzes for your friends with them. Just throw away the first blintz. Always throw it away.”

When we moved to Israel – made aliyah – in July 2013, we got rid of a lot of stuff as we were moving from a large, four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom apartment. But I kept Grandmother’s pans. They were a link to the past: to heritage, to history, to family. They were carefully placed in a box filled with lots of other kitchen paraphernalia: wooden spoons, a flour sifter, drawer dividers, a colander I especially liked for draining pasta, an orange zester, a variety of baking pans, a set of plates for serving asparagus, and other items I was convinced I’d never find in Israel. (Indeed, I’ve never, ever seen asparagus plates here in Jerusalem.) But when our cargo container finished its voyage from Los Angeles to China and into the port of Ashdod, that box was missing. The pans (along with the asparagus plates and my favorite colander) had disappeared.

Last year, I was cleaning a cupboard above the refrigerator when I noticed a Nordstrom’s bag pushed back into the corner of a shelf. Inside was a plastic bag and inside that were the blintz pans. How they got there is a still-unsolved mystery. At the bottom of the shopping bag was a note in Grandmother’s distinctive cursive penmanship that said:

2 blintz pans.
Use them for Shavuos – or whenever.
Wherever you may be.
Love, Grandmother

I’ve used the pans for Shavuot – and on other occasions. And now, “wherever you may be” is in Israel – in Jerusalem. As I mix that first batch of batter and melt the butter in the pan (” Never use oil!!”), the spirit of Don’s grandmother stands next to me thousands of miles from that kitchen in southern California and her unseen hand guides my fingers as I pour those first spoonsful of batter into the pan. I wait for the bubbles to appear on the surface indicating the bletlach is almost ready. As I see the edges of the blintz brown, I take the spatula and gently pull it from the pan but as I place it on the plate covered with a tea-towel, I instantly remember Grandmother’s cardinal rule of blintz making: “Throw out the first one!” But rather than tossing it away – I roll it up, sprinkle it with a bit of powdered sugar, and in lieu of a blessing (I wonder, is there a blessing for a blintz?) say to myself:

Ashreinu ma tov chelkeinu umah naim goralinu umah yafah y’rushateinu!
Happy are we; how good is our portion; how pleasant is our lot; and how beautiful is our inheritance!

That, for sure, is a suitable blessing for a blintz handed down with love and care through the generations.

Chag sameach!

On Shavuot: “Re-Covenanting” as a Unified People

Kotel (Western Wall) crowded with throngs of visitors

And Israel encamped [at Sinai] as one person with one mind.
— Rashi on Exodus 19:3

Remarkable unity characterized the Jewish people in the days before receiving Torah at Sinai, an event we commemorate on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. As a student in Jerusalem one year, I experienced that unity powerfully on Shavuot. At the end of the traditional all-night learning session, I joined thousands of others streaming toward the Old City. We poured into the Western Wall plaza and I nestled myself in with one prayer group among the hundreds. Tens of thousands of people packed the plaza, a sea of white prayer shawls and people swaying together to the sounds of our ancient liturgy. Indeed, my sense of oneness with the Jewish people at that moment was “like one person with one mind.”

The next year was very different. I finished the night of study in Jerusalem with friends from one of the liberal Jewish seminaries. Again, we joined the masses walking to the Old City, this time with our own Torah scroll in hand. When we arrived at the Western Wall plaza we set up our prayer service toward the back, away from many of the other groups. My friend started the morning blessings, our group of men and women standing around him.

Almost immediately, a man with a prayer shawl ran up to our table and yelled at us in Hebrew, motioning with his hands for us to leave. “Forbidden! Forbidden!” he called out repeatedly, gesticulating wildly. He was drawing attention and more people began to approach. A guard told us to move to an area in back of the plaza and up some stairs. We were not prepared for a major confrontation, so we moved to this area called “The Archeological Garden,” a quiet and lovely place to pray, so we began again.

Again, within moments, a man stuck his head out a window in his home near the garden and yelled those same words, “Forbidden! Forbidden!” My friend walked over and spoke quietly with him, assuring him that we were permitted to pray – men and women together – in this area. After a short conversation the man calmed down and we continued until we were finished.

The unity and the feeling of the year before were gone. I felt marginalized, separate, and disrespected, humiliated and furious all at once. This was my first experience with the depth of divisions in the Jewish people, divisions so deep that the Orthodox majority felt empowered to marginalize liberal Jews who came to celebrate receiving our shared inheritance, the Torah. I realized that the unity I had felt a year earlier was merely an illusion. Could a Jewish community this fractured ever be whole enough to stand again at Sinai?

This ancient story about receiving the Torah provides a way forward. The Talmud, in Shabbat 88b, tells us that when the Torah originally was presented to the Israelites, God held the mountain over their head and basically said, “I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse. Accept the Torah, or else.” Commenting on this coercion, one of the rabbis of the Talmud explained that the Jewish people can’t be held accountable to fulfill the Torah because they only accepted it under duress. Another rabbi agreed but added that, during the time of Esther and Mordechai, hundreds of years later in Persia, the Jews accepted the Torah voluntarily and thus are obligated in its fulfillment.

In the language of community organizing, the two different models of receiving Torah are called “power over” and “power with.” A power over model features domination and coercion.  God, so to speak, forced a unified acceptance of the Torah. A power with model invites people into participation, as Esther did by making herself vulnerable and asking the Jews of Shushan to unify together in a three-day fast.

In a power over model, the dominant group forces its vision and understanding of the world on everyone else – which is what happens at the Western Wall. Those who reject the dominant perspective are marginalized, threatened, and discounted. A power with model emphasizes sharing power and raising up previously marginalized voices for the good of the whole.

Only the power with model will help the Jewish people – in all our diversity of thought – achieve unity. The more one segment tries to impose its will on others, the more resistance and division it will create. If you sense your community is unified, who might be on the margins, not feeling that unity? In what ways does the dominant group in your community impose its will on the collective?

The key is for us to employ a power with approach – listening, not telling; cultivating curiosity for Torah, not imposing our approach; and making room for diverse perspectives. Although a power over approach may be easier, it won’t create unity. Knowing that real unity involves every voice, on Shavuot, let us commit to learn how others make sense of our shared Torah and bring people in from the margins.

13 Heart-Warming Jewish Stories about Moms for this Mother’s Day

Adult hands cupping a childs hands holding a red plastic heart atop a blue wooden table

Throughout the years, we at ReformJudaism.org have been honored to publish countless essays about families, many of them with a focus on motherhood. We’ve shared stories from mothers, about mothers, honoring late mothers, and hoping for motherhood.

This Mother’s Day, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite stories about moms to share with you. We hope you’ll read them, enjoy them, relate to them, comment on them, and maybe share stories of your own mothers. Happy Mother’s Day!

1. “Rings and Things: Remembering Loss, Moving Toward Life”

Esther Kustanowitz writes about a piece of jewelry she inherited after her mother’s death and how it helps her feel connected to both her late mother and her late grandmother – as well as to her Judaism. “Remembering how it was on my hand instead of my mother’s, how she wouldn’t touch my hand again, the tears would return,” she writes – but there’s a message from her mother at the end of the story.

2. “My First Time Praying at the Kotel’s Egalitarian Prayer Plaza”

Jacob Kraus shares how it felt to pray at the Western Wall with his mother instead of separating from her: “As we approached the plaza together, I remember feeling grateful and hopeful… I also felt hopeful that the establishment of this plaza would not mark the end of the journey toward increased recognition of progressive Judaism in Israel.” His mother, a Reform rabbi, likely felt the same.

3. “Honoring My Mom’s Legacy, on Mother’s Day and Every Day”

Jane E. Herman writes about how, even after her mother’s death, she continues to celebrate Mother’s Day: “Just as I honor my sister and my aunts on Mother’s Day for the roles they play in my life, I use the occasion – and every day, for that matter – to honor my mom.” She shares language from her late mother’s ethical will and explains how it inspires the way she lives today.

4. “Making Soup, Making Shabbat”

Stacey Zisook Robinson shares memories of her mother making chicken soup for Shabbat – the smells, the tastes, and the memories that linger with her, long beyond her mother’s time on earth. “The soup was Shabbat,” she writes, “in the same way that going to synagogue and being part of my community is now.” She even shares her bubbe’s recipe for chicken soup.

5. “My Jewish, LGBT family: Normal but Not So Nuclear”

In an essay written before the legalizatoion of marriage equality, Leah Dawson writes about growing up in a two-mother home. While some aspects up her upbringing may have been different from those of her peers who had heterosexual parents, she says, “My emotional development –my feeling whole and loved, cared for and accepted (the true qualifications of parenthood) – have never been for want.”

6. “Seven Shiva Lessons from My Mom”

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein shares seven “mourner’s tips” – one for each day of shiva – in honor of her mother’s Jewish life. “She touched thousands of lives and inspired not just me but hundreds of other kids to become rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, synagogue presidents, and involved, passionate Reform Jews,” Rabbi Goldstein explains.

7. “A Letter to My Mother on Her First Yahrzeit”

Cantor Sheila Nesis writers about how Psalm 23 reminds her of her late mother on the anniversary of her death. “Although this psalm talks about God,” she writes, “I think about it this morning and see it under a completely new light. Today, I think it talks about you.”

8. “Growing Up with Parents with Disabilities”

Howard Lev shares his experiences as the child of two parents who both had disabilities; his mother used a wheelchair after contracting polio as a child, and his father had a pronounced limp due to scoliosis. “I desperately wish my parents were still alive today to see the strides made for people with disabilities,” Lev writes after discussing the challenges they faced – and overcame – together. “I know they would’ve loved the opportunity to take part in communal life without the many barriers they faced.”

9. “What Has Your Mother Taught You?”

Rabbi PJ Schwartz shares the many lessons his mother has imparted upon him and how they have impacted his character. “My mom never has just been a mom,” he says. “She has been someone who I have looked up to, someone who has been proud of me for my successes and failures, and someone who never has given up on me.” That’s what so many mothers strive for!

10. “How My Mother’s Organ Donation Changed My Commitment to Social Justice”

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen talks about how his mother’s extraordinary act of selflessness – donating a kidney to a stranger – influenced his worldviews and his own commitment to tikkun olam (repair of our broken world). He pledges: “I will donate blood more regularly. I will write, vote, and advocate to prevent gun violence. I will build on the work of the NAACP to respond to racial injustice in our communities.”

11. “The Best Gift My Parents Ever Gave Me”

Sean Carlin writes about the decision that his Jewish mother and Irish-Catholic father made to send him to Jewish summer camp as a child. “I cite my parents’ decision to raise a Jewish family as my gift of a lifetime because of the astronomical impact it has had on my life thus far,” writes Carlin, who went on to work for URJ Camp Harlam.

12. “Trying to Please Mom: A Son’s Labor of Love”

Deborah Rood Goldman tells the story of restaurateur Peter Gethers, author of My Mother’s Kitchen. “He regales readers with the history of Ratner’s and its famous customers, but that is only one facet of his story. My Mother’s Kitchen is Gethers’ clear-eyed assessment of his mom, Judy” – and a gift to her for all she has given to him.

13. “4 Things I Learned From My Catholic Mother that Have Made Me a Better Jew”

Allyson Zacharoff shares the top four things she’s learned from her background and her mother’s Catholic faith that have strengthened her Judaism: “Through this lens,” she explains, “I learned about love and about respect for all people, regardless of their beliefs.”

What’s your favorite story about your own mother? Leave us a comment and let us know! Don’t forget to check out this Prayer for the Shabbat before Mother’s Day, too. 

Eulogy for Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D.

May We All Be Disciples of Our Aaron

Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Aaron Panken, z"l

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.

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 huc.edu/transportation by 5:00 pm on Monday, May 7. A live webstream of the service will be available on the Westchester Reform Temple website at wrtemple.org.

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 huc.edu/memorial 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. www.huc.edu