Inaugural Address of Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, at Plum Street Temple on June 8, 2014 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Inaugural Address of Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, at Plum Street Temple on June 8, 2014

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., presents his Inaugural Address at Plum Street Temple on June 8, 2014

Dear faculty; staff colleagues; cherished students; devoted Board members and friends; our dedicated partners from the Union for Reform Judaism, represented by Rabbi Rick Jacobs whom I thank for his beautiful words, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, represented by Rabbi Rick Block, whom I thank for his lovely words and the many other organizations which constitute our Reform Movement; members of our extended Jewish and scholarly communities, our wonderful friends in the Cincinnati community who have been so welcoming and hospitable in the true manner of hakhnasat orhim that our tradition values over this entire weekend. In fact, if you look a bit further in your booklets, you will see they have gone so far as to declare today “President Aaron Panken Day.” In my family, we observe two days. My beloved family and friends who have gathered with us on this moving afternoon: I begin with words of gratitude from the depths of my heart. Our amidah,the standing prayer in our daily worship, contains perhaps the most beautiful statement of thanks, when it says:

nodeh lecha, u’nesaper tehilatecha,

al hayyenu hamesurim beyadecha,

v’al nishmoteinu hepekudot lach,

v’al nisecha sh’b’chol yom imanu,

v’al niflotecha v’tovotecha sh’bechol eit, erev vavoker vetsohorayim

“We thank you, God, and we recount Your praise, for our lives which are in Your hand, for our souls which are ever in Your keeping, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your wondrous gifts at all times, morning, noon and night.” I am thankful to God, for God’s miracles at all times, of course, but all the more so, at this precious moment. I am grateful beyond words for the blessing of standing here as your new President, and look with hope and joy toward a bright future, for our College-Institute, for our Reform Movement and for Am Yisrael – the Jewish people.

For the remarkably inspiring words we have shared in today’s liturgy, I thank my teacher and my rabbinical thesis advisor, Professor Larry Hoffman, who, with sensitivity, inspiration and insight leads our movement in the paths of worship to ever greater heights. To those whose magical voices and thrilling music have helped our prayers ascend to heaven this afternoon, led so ably by Cantors Benjie Ellen Schiller, Angela Warnick Buchdahl, Yvon Shore and Alane Katzew; Joyce Rosenzweig, Merri Arian, the members of our Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music choir, and many others, I sing your praises, now, for all that you have done to inspire us in this moment and to fill it with song and meaning. For all those who have put their hearts and souls into making this occasion so memorable and meaningful: Mona Kerstine, chair of the Inauguration who has brought unending talent, grace and optimism to every element of this celebration; our entire talented, imaginative and hardworking Inauguration Team, with special thanks to Jonathan Cohen, Ken Kanter, Jane Karlin, Elliott Kleinman, Sylvia Posner, and Jean Rosensaft and all their outstanding helpers who have worked tirelessly; the good people of Wise Temple led by our Governor and dear friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, I thank you for all the many blessings you have offered our College-Institute and my family. To my dear friends and respected teachers who spoke at our Symposium, and those leading parts of this afternoon’s service, please know how much you inspire our community and me, and the lasting impact you have had and continue to have on all of our lives. And to my illustrious predecessors who are with us today, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman and Rabbi Norman Cohen, you have illuminated the way for us, and we have joyously followed in your footsteps. To my dear friend and teacher in so many ways, our Chancellor, Rabbi David Ellenson, who served with such distinction these past twelve years – David, please know the enormous sense of gratitude I feel, for your loving support and your constant dedication to our College-Institute. Your exceptional ways of leadership continue to be both blessing and model to me.

In our Talmudic tradition, Rabbi Akiva is said to have left his family for years to attend the yeshivah, studying there, eventually teaching there, and ultimately encouraging thousands of students to join him, thus fostering the next generation of rabbinic scholarship. But the Talmud notes that more so even than Rabbi Akiva, it was his wife who gave up everything to make it possible for him to attend and then serve in the house of study. When he finally returns home after twenty-four years to reunite with his family, some disciples attempt to push his wife aside, not recognizing that she had been his prime support each and every day. Rabbi Akiva responds shivkooha, sheli v’shelachem shalah hoo – “let her be, for all that is mine and all that is yours is hers.” In all my years of study and teaching, I, too, have been blessed, in Lisa, with an unparalleled supporter, a profoundly astute partner in every way. She shares my conviction that it is entirely worthwhile dedicating one’s life to the exquisite honor of committed Jewish leadership, for as long as God will graciously allow us to do so. And it’s nice to know that, with her, there is at least one place in the world where I will always be just a vice-president! My children, Eli and Samantha, both committed Jewish individuals in their own right, have been wonderfully encouraging throughout, ever since we first discussed this new possibility over lunch many months ago. My parents, in whose home I first came to learn moral precepts and how to live a Jewish life, have continued their kind, loving and responsible guidance, and I am deeply grateful that they are here to share in today’s celebration. My sister, a respected colleague in the Reform rabbinate, along with her family, has offered love and insight at every turn. My father-in-law, and the many, many rabbis and Jewish leaders in our family, and, indeed, all the members of our extended Panken-Messinger clan, have been there every step of the way, as have all of our friends. I feel, at this moment, greatly blessed, and with respect to white hair, as Rabbi Jacobs noted, whatever white hairs have already accumulated, please know that thanks to your love, the brown still far outweighs the white!

The beautiful words you heard from the Chairman of our Board, Irwin Engelman, and from the Chair of our Search Committee, Martin Cohen, convey the essence of our work together for the years ahead. Already, I know what an unprecedented blessing it is to serve the Jewish people with individuals like Irwin, Marty and our incoming chairman, Andy Berger by my side. Daily, I give thanks for their wisdom, their insight and the long view they bring to what we do at the College-Institute. When I stop to count my blessings, which I do quite often this week, I am so grateful for my constant companions on our talented senior leadership team, for our amazing students who impress me regularly, for our renowned faculty members – my teachers and colleagues – from whom I have learned so much over the years, and for our nearly 4,000 dedicated alumni around the world. With our Governors and Overseers, supporters and friends, they are truly an extraordinary gift to a new president committed to building a bright future. Your confidence in me means the world to me, and it is only exceeded by my confidence in you. I will do my level best, 24/6/365, to work with you as we do today: in an inspiring and collaborative partnership that seeks to better every facet of our institution and the Jewish world.

We stand, today, at a moment of great potential – one replete with enormous and exciting opportunities and yet also a few challenges. Working carefully and effectively, the College-Institute and our Movement have the ability to chart an inspiring course together for our community in the decades ahead. But to speak of the future, the past and the present situation of our people must form an essential backdrop. First, we must begin by considering nahalateinu – our inheritance. Then, mesimateinu – our mission. And, finally, atideinu – our future.

Nahalateinu – Our Inheritance

This gorgeous sanctuary is filled with memories of those exemplary Presidents who came before – Isaac Mayer Wise and Moses Mielziner, Gotthard Deutsch and Kaufmann Kohler, Julian Morgenstern and Stephen S. Wise, Nelson Glueck and Alfred Gottschalk – one can almost hear their powerful voices echoing still among the pillars and the pews of Plum Street Temple. We can imagine the classes that took place in this building’s basement, for it was, for a few years, an early home of the Hebrew Union College, where high school students studied in an eight year preparatory course for the rabbinate. One can feel the spirit of the extraordinary professors and preachers, rabbis and cantors, educators and scholars, whose mighty acts of creating community and transmitting knowledge shaped a vital American Judaism that has stood the test of time.

If we are to look carefully at our nahalah – our inheritance – since our founding in 1875, we can see three phases within it, which for today I will term: immigration, integration and individualization. During the 1800s and early 1900s, in a departure of Abrahamic proportions, most of our forbears left their homes in Europe, and set off for America to join the small number of Jews who had come here earlier, seeking the “promised land” perceived by some to be “the new Zion.” Economic need, the quest for religious freedom and safety from persecution and the compelling lure of new opportunities combined to lead young and old to set off to make their fortunes. From Ellis Island and Galveston, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, millions of these Jewish immigrants fanned out across the country, driving their humble pushcarts into unknown territory and establishing Jewish communities in places where they had never before existed.

It was in these heady days of immigration that so many of our key Jewish organizations, congregations and institutions of education, this one included, came into existence. Immigration led to an ambitious age of creation – new synagogues abounded, as did Jewish organizations that worked for the education, welfare and protection of both new arrivals and longtime citizens.

Over the years, peddlers’ pushcarts turned to corner groceries, then to department stores, and with diligence and hard work our progenitors began to thrive in America. Even with such success, powerful forces kept American Jews close together. Universities, neighborhoods, occupations, business and civic organizations and country clubs often constructed their admission procedures to ensure that Jews were excluded. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, these restrictions ensured that Jews remained quite close together, and Jewish neighborhoods thrived. Such proximity allowed for Jewish community to develop and it offered much in the way of centripetal force to retain Jews inside their communal orbit.

Over time, department stores gave way, in many cases, to law offices and medical practices, Wall Street and Hollywood, university positions and corner offices. With the waves of suburbanization that overtook America in the 1950s and 60s, as new institutions were built, we began to see, for the first time, a broader sense of acceptance into surrounding society. With these shifts came our second phase, that of integration into the broader American context.

It was a time of mixed feelings, as universalist optimism and deep uncertainty coexisted: on the one hand, the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust produced a decided mistrust of Western society, one which we hear echoed in the recent alarming rise in European anti-Semitic violence; on the other hand, the founding of the State of Israel and our expanded access to American society offered a new sense of strength and renewed hope. Reform Judaism focused its efforts squarely on our tradition’s universalist tendencies. Our all-encompassing commitments to righteousness led us to march in Selma, to stand in solidarity with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to help create the Civil Rights Act and to invest our time and talent in many other worthy acts of social justice. Just as we worked for justice for others, so, too, did we toil to ensure that Jews had full access to the same rights as other Americans.

As this integration continued, those centripetal forces that had kept us together began to weaken, and centrifugal forces came into play. American Jews were now free to branch out, living wherever they chose, taking up any profession, joining different political parties, participating in almost any club, rising to positions of prominence in a broad array of cultural, educational, government and business organizations, and making choices in marriage and religious practice as they pleased. With this shift, the pull toward the center of the Jewish community changed radically. With less influence from those forces that once held our community together, we live in a world of ultimate choice, and this constitutes the third phase of North American Jewish life, which I will call “individualization.” In it, all is ultimately left up to the choices each individual makes within a vast range of possibilities.

We are now denizens of a world brimming over with choice. Consider two simple examples: once, when one went to buy milk in a grocery store, there were three choices: regular milk, 2% and skim. Now, step into any supermarket and you will be, as I am, baffled to see the variety that is available: organic and non-organic, Lactaid vs. regular, Parmalat that promises the shelf-life of Methusaleh, soy milk and almond milk and rice milk in all their varieties, non GMO milk and on and on and on. An enormous number of choices now go into even the simple act of buying milk. Once, there was one giant phone company called AT&T, but now we consider dozens of choices when we seek phone service: landline or wireless, smart phone or not; VOIP or FIOS; Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or other smaller brands; cable or fiber optic; limited or unlimited minutes; international long distance or not; bundled with television and internet with hot spots, or, perhaps not and so on. And how do we decide? We peruse the shrill and biased reviews that all disagree with one another, and try to make sense of all our many, many options. This trend applies everywhere – from books and entertainment, to the news we watch and read, to what one does with one’s body and spouse and gender and family and friends.

In this third phase, Judaism, too, is saturated with choices. Along with such possibilities, comes the overwhelming distraction inherent in too much choice – it takes time to take in all this content and then make all these decisions, time we once spent reading and thinking and studying and learning. We are the most distracted generation in history, and studies prove that a preponderance of choices leads both to more confusion and to more superficial engagement. Add to this the broad proliferation of Jewish organizations, synagogues and seminaries aimed at serving ever smaller and more tightly defined segments of our community, and a resultant shift in the role of centralized communal organizations. While it has required Jewish organizations once set in their ways to become more nimble and to re-envision themselves in ever new and more dynamic ways, it has also reduced the ability of our entire community to act in a concerted way, together, as one.

Here’s the exceptionally good news: Reform Judaism has often referred to itself with a kind of quick and imperfect shorthand as the movement of “choice through knowledge.” This means that to make thoughtful, authentic decisions, one must certainly have knowledge, but that the application of this knowledge to the contemporary situation is, ultimately, mediated by each individual’s relationship with his or her community. The goal is to incorporate Jewish knowledge, provided by our tradition as it has developed over the centuries, into the daily process of deciding how to live one’s life.  This implies that when a Reform Jew confronts an ethical decision or a social injustice; when she is deciding how to observe Shabbat or hagim, or give tzedakah, or what to eat or not to eat; when he has to consider how to get married or divorced or raise his children, that Jewish tradition has a serious and significant voice in that choice. Now, the truth is, we have the “choice” part covered – we are very, very good at that, which makes perfect sense given both our history and our contemporary context. But on the knowledge part of the equation, we can certainly do better. This, truly, is our nachalah – our inheritance – we are a Movement that values and respects individual choice, that puts Jewish ethics into action in laudable and moving ways, and often speaks lovingly of Jewish tradition, but we could also use some help on ensuring that our people understand and enact their ancestors’ faith in a deeper way. And that is where we now come to mesimateinu – our mission.

Mesimateinu – Our Mission

In the contemporary Jewish context, our mission at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion continues to be to serve as a shining, innovative and attractive beacon of broad Jewish learning, first to our students, then to our alumni, and then to the rest of the Reform and collective Jewish and scholarly worlds. Our message of a thoughtful, ethical, innovative and dynamic Judaism that actively learns and observes, that cares for those in need and works for those in need of justice, is perfectly suited for the world around us. In fact, many, many innovations we see in other streams of Judaism are actually the direct result of our Movement’s past actions.

Consider the massive innovations we see now in prayer across all movements. Our Movement’s proud tradition of innovation in worship extends back to Germany in the 1800s, long before any other Jewish group had even considered substantial revision of a siddur whose main rubrics had remained largely unchanged since the tenth century. We were the first to incorporate sermons, readings and poetry in the vernacular; the first to employ inspiring music and musical instruments on Shabbat and Festivals; and the first to ensure equality and dignity for all in worship. When I think of the incredible innovations taking place every day in how we pray all over the Jewish world, I know the impact we have had and we can have.

Consider the acceptance of feminist critiques of religion and the opportunity for gifted women to serve as Jewish religious leaders. HUC-JIR was the first Jewish seminary in history to celebrate the regular ordination of female rabbis, beginning in 1972 with Rabbi Sally Priesand, a dear friend and one of my rabbis growing up. We were first to integrate feminist readings of text and traditions into our intellectual framework. Now, all movements do it, or are, at least, beginning to consider doing it. When I think of our many alumnae who serve with such distinction, or of the nearly 2000 Orthodox Jewish Feminists who gather each year to consider how Orthodox Judaism might better incorporate feminist concerns into their movement, I know the impact we have had and we can have.

Consider the many Jewish social justice organizations, whether local or national; think of the camps, youth groups and Israel programs on the national Jewish youth scene; and the innovative educational initiatives that abound in Jewish life today. The truth is, our Movement has led this invigorating proliferation of possibilities, and inspired the Jewish world to be more creative, more dynamic and more open to innovation than ever before. When I think of what happens in each of these arenas around the world every minute of every day, I know the impact we have had and we can have.

All this must also continue to be our mission. And there remains much to do. First and foremost, HUC-JIR, with its partners in the Reform Movement and across the Jewish polity, must become the center of a new focus on helping Jews not just engage with but learn about our tradition. Reform Jewish learning must move from pleasant and, at times, superficial, to real awareness of the extraordinary gifts that lie at the heart of our tradition. In every congregation and school, we have a core of committed learners who drink deeply from the wellsprings of our faith, guided by our students and alumni. But there are far too many Jews who no longer engage regularly enough to reach the sort of learning that can help them understand that commitment to Jewish study and Jewish life is a choice of integrity, value and meaning. Our cherished Jewish tradition can inform both life’s high points and its lows, it can call us to be better citizens of our world, it can respond to our need for spirituality and comfort, for intellectual stimulation and community. It can offer guidance for so many of the ethical and practical decisions that we face every day. But it can’t offer any of this if we are too distracted to learn, and no one really knows much about it.

I liken this situation to one in which the most beautiful gift sits unopened on a shelf – everyone can see that the wrapping is absolutely gorgeous, the ribbon sparkles and shines against the paper, we know that something lovely and valuable lies within, and the gift has token value because of that assumption. The problem is, however, that no one has opened it and benefited from it in anything more than the most passive way, leaving its true value unassessed and unknown. Too few are the members of our community who have opened the packages of Jewish life their parents and grandparents bequeathed them, and I fear the number is not yet increasing.

Let us commit ourselves on this day, to leaving no part of the awesome gift of Jewish tradition unopened anymore. Our faculty, our students and our graduates lead the way in helping others open up the Jewish tradition that is the sparkling gift of their ancestors – they have all the tools and skills necessary to make it accessible and meaningful in fresh and lasting ways. We must bring all our resources to ensuring that upcoming generations have positive and inspiring Jewish learning experiences that will engage them, teach them, and build them into shapers of the Jewish future with knowledge, commitment and strength. This is, after all, what the great academies of Jewish learning have always done – from Yavneh and Usha to Sura and Pumbedita, in North Africa and Spain, across Europe, and, finally, in North America and Israel – such institutions have always exerted themselves lehagdil Torah u’leha’adirah, to magnify Torah and to exalt it. They did this by training and engaging the most exceptional faculty, by seeking out and generously supporting the best and brightest students, by ensuring a curriculum that was both rooted in inherited tradition and immediately relevant, and by holding themselves to high standards that led to high achievement. And we will do no less, faithfully extending the awesome trajectory of our predecessors.

Our mission, then, is to build on our splendid past, and create a brighter, better educated and more inspired future. 

Atideinu – Our Future

Our institution’s extraordinary future will hinge on the following nontrivial goal: we must find and support the absolute best and brightest of students, and educate them with the absolute best faculty, curriculum, alumni, library, archival and other resources they will need. In this endeavor, we need everyone here this afternoon to participate. Help us find the best students, help us encourage a brave new generation of leaders, so that our children and grandchildren will know the joy we know of living a Jewish life of the highest integrity and the deepest meaning. In a world of expansive choice and competition, consistent quality and relevance are our core necessities. As North America’s first institution of higher Jewish learning, we are the largest, best resourced Jewish seminary in the Progressive world, yet we must commit ourselves to constant review and improvement of all that we do. We must build on the strength and geographic diversity of our campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem every day. We must root ourselves more firmly into the Jewish community, in these cities, and around the globe, and build our presence, a project that is already off to a great start. We must also send the message, loud and clear, with all our constituencies, that there is nothing more exciting, more important or more fulfilling than working in today’s Jewish community. Beyond the inherently fascinating learning derived from thousands of years of Jewish tradition, beyond the excellent vocational opportunities, such work offers a life that is meaningful and leaves the world a better place. 

We will continue to build our focus on and our presence in Jerusalem. As the only North American seminary with a full campus and program in Israel, we are proud to be 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. With our 84 ordained Israeli Reform rabbis and many more studying in our program in Jerusalem right now, in addition to the scores we have trained in pluralistic Jewish education and chaplaincy, we have already seen the indelible impact we can have on Israeli religion, government and society. We must further ensure that visiting groups, family and congregational trips, and b’nai mitzvah, find a welcoming home on our Jerusalem campus as well. With dedication and hard work, we must improve the understanding and linkage of Reform Jews worldwide with our Jewish State and with all our global partners, and we must fervently support and advocate for the long term security of the State of Israel.

I would humbly suggest another project: we need to consider precisely what it means to be Reform Jews in an increasingly post-denominational world. 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 comfortably in dialogue with other faiths and ideologies. But when we look around the community, these qualities alone may no longer actually distinguish us from many other developing streams of Jewish life. I dream of a Reform Judaism that is distinctive, where the great ideas we stand for are a lasting source of pride. To make this so, we must begin to addresses anew the many challenges extant in the world around us: from defeating poverty to improving healthcare and upgrading public education; from finding some rational way to decrease the frightening gun violence in our midst to tending to the environment; from considering aspects of foreign policy in an ever more complicated global scene to ensuring that voices are heard all across the political spectrum. HUC-JIR must continue to be a place where critical conversations like this take place on the most vital issues, not in overly partisan and polarizing ways, but in deeper, more informed fashion. The Jewish world will be better for it, and we are perfectly positioned to make it happen.

Finally, we plan for the College-Institute to expand its global thought leadership in the years to come, allowing members of our community and our affiliates to benefit from the creativity and expertise of our faculty and students through new online offerings, new kinds of conferences and gatherings on contemporary Jewish topics, and content that will educate interested scholars, alumni and students of all ages, races, faiths, languages and denominations. We will build upon our successes in the area of hybrid and executive programs, expanding our student base and broadening our impact in the broader Jewish community. The Jewish world is waiting for us to develop in this manner, and we will not fail to deliver on our role as the intellectual center of our Movement, and, indeed, of greater Judaism, in the years ahead.

We are in many ways, once again, immigrants who have arrived on the shores of a new world, one quite different from the one our great-grandparents first inhabited. Like any immigrants, we bring with us our cherished traditions and the inspiring wisdom of our ancestors, but it will take all our creativity, all our commitment, and all our attention to ensure that we flourish as we make new forays onto novel shores. Just as they were up to the challenge, just as Abraham faced his fears and went off into the unknown, just as our people wandered in the desert led by Moses, Aaron and Miriam, to find their sacred place, just as the generations moved from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia to North Africa to Europe to America and Israel, yet always remained part of our people, we, too, will find our way, with God’s blessing. May the Holy One who has blessed our journey thus far, continue to bless each of us, our Movement, and, most of all, our beloved College-Institute, henceforth and forever. 

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 leaders to serve 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.