Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., was inaugurated as the 12th President in the 139-year history of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the academic and professional leadership center of Reform Judaism, on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at 2 p.m. at Cincinnati’s landmark Isaac M. Wise / K.K. B’nai Yeshurun / Plum Street Temple.
The Inauguration was attended by the international leaders of the Reform Movement, dignitaries from international academic institutions and organizations, and communal and civic leaders of Cincinnati, and featured the participation of leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, and HUC-JIR Board of Governors, and alumni, faculty, and students.
As HUC-JIR President, Dr. Panken leads 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.
Ordained by HUC-JIR in New York in 1991, Rabbi Panken has served as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives (2007-2010), Dean of the New York campus (1998-2007), and Dean of Students (1996-1998). He has taught Rabbinic and Second Temple Literature at HUC-JIR in New York since 1995, with research interests in the historical development of legal concepts and terms; narrative development; and development of holiday observances.
“I am greatly honored to serve as the President of HUC-JIR and to strive for ongoing innovation and creativity in strengthening our institution as the intellectual center of Progressive Judaism worldwide,” stated Dr. Panken. “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. As we invigorate our partnerships with Reform synagogues and the larger Reform Movement, we will shape 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. By nurturing the entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit of our faculty, staff, and students, we can bring forth new projects and programs that will reimagine Jewish learning, transform the Jewish community, and extend the College-Institute’s leadership in Jewish higher education throughout the seminary and university worlds.”
An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Dr. Panken earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He currently serves on faculty for the Wexner Foundation and the Editorial Board of Reform Judaism Magazine, and has 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 greater Jewish community. 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 is also a certificated commercial pilot and sailor. His publications include The Rhetoric of Innovation (University Press of America, 2005), which explores legal change in Rabbinic texts, and articles in leading academic journals and scholarly volumes. He has lectured widely at academic conferences and synagogues throughout North America and served as visiting faculty at universities in Australia and China.
Hebrew Union College was established in 1875 in Cincinnati by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, and is the first institution of higher Jewish education in America. Rabbi Panken’s predecessors include Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1875-1900); Acting President Rabbi Moses Mielziner (1900-1903); Acting President Rabbi Gotthard Deutsch (1903); Rabbi Kaufman Kohler (1903-1921); and Rabbi Julian Morgenstern (1921-1947), who rescued scholars and students from Nazi Europe. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in 1922 in New York by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1922-1948), a pioneer of the American Zionist Movement and a social justice activist. The merger of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion took place in 1948, headed by Dr. Nelson Glueck (1947-1971), a renowned biblical archaeologist who established HUC-JIR’s campuses in Los Angeles (1954) and Jerusalem (1963). He was succeeded by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk (1971-1996); Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman (1996-2000); Acting President Norman J. Cohen (2000-2001); and Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D. (2001-2013), who now serves as Chancellor.