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.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi '95, Ph.D., National Director of Recruitment and Admissions; President's Scholar; and Director, Office of Community Engagement, shares:
Aaron challenged and appreciated and respected each of us professionally and personally. Even when—especially when—we disagreed with him. He wanted to better understand all sides of an issue and how each of us thought about the crucial ones. These were arguments for the ‘sake of Heaven’ מחלוקת לשם שמיים and the sign of a strong and thoughtful leader. He never claimed to have the whole truth and still led with clarity and contagious enthusiasm and made difficult decisions very carefully.
Something of this deep human respect was clear to me when I first met him when I was just 16. I remember being so stunned that he took me, a NFTY VP high-schooler, so seriously. But over the last decades I have witnessed him treat countless people—students and strangers, young and old, famous and not, with sincere respect and a desire to learn from each one.
איזה הוא חכם? הלומד מכל אדם. ‘Who is wise?’ asks the Mishnah, ‘the one who learns from every person.’
It has been quite an adventure and a great source of pride to have been part of his HUC-JIR team these last 5 years, traveling simultaneously huge mileage. (We had a friendly competition each time we met of how many miles we had each flown in the service of HUC-JIR since we last saw each other.) It was intense and illuminating to work with him amidst the uniquenesses of each of our four campuses, engaging with students and alumni, faculty and staff, donors and lay leadership, community partners, and fellow Wexner friends and partners throughout the Jewish world. I am so grateful to have learned from his leadership and his Torah and his strategic clarity. And I am exceedingly proud to have been, along with all our HUC-JIR colleagues, part of his successes. Our last exchanges on Thursday and Friday were primarily about his excitement, ideas, and concerns for the future. He repeatedly shared his delight about the incoming class, the largest in 11 years, and was already looking forward to welcoming them all in Jerusalem in July. He wanted to know more about each one of them even as he was simultaneously focused on those graduating that day. Whatever the topic, he always wanted to know more, to understand more. We talked about what the next five-ten years might bring to the institution, and to the North American and Israeli Jewish communities and broader societies. We jokingly placed a ‘bet’ to be determined in three years.
He was laser-focused simultaneously on the big picture and the smallest detail, on the immediate moment and on the near and distant future. He cared deeply about כלל ישראל —the collective unity of the Jewish People. He loved the State of Israel passionately and unconditionally—but not uncritically. He really loved the Hebrew language in all its forms. And even when it might have been much easier, he worked hard never to lose sight of the individual person. Often—even in the most serious or stressful moments—he was often the one to highlight the humor in a situation and modeled embracing the basic reality of the moment. Of all of existence. His was/is an ambitious and inspiring vision. And while he had already achieved so much, he set his sights even higher. It was so clear to all of us that he was only just getting started.
Funeral services took place on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. The recording is available here.