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A Tribute to Rabbi Aaron Panken

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

By Rabbi Sara Luria '13

Sometimes I find myself back in the HUC-JIR/New York elevator with my classmates who live in other cities now, and they often share how bizarre it is to be back on campus. I, however, don’t feel unsettled or nostalgic at HUC-JIR/New York because it seems, to my great surprise, that I never really left. I was ordained in 2013 but, over the last 5 years, I was often at One West Fourth Street as part of my role working with Rabbi Larry Hoffman on the Tisch/Star fellowship. This spring, I decided that I was going to leave my role on campus, and, a few weeks before Aaron died, I found myself on the 4th floor saying goodbye to my wonderful colleagues there. Aaron’s assistant’s door was open and I briefly entertained the idea that I could just ask her if Aaron was in so I could say goodbye. But then I thought, ‘He’s the president, Sara! You can’t just walk into his office for a chat! He doesn’t have time!’, and I left the building.

It’s possible that in that particular moment he was on a conference call or out to lunch with a donor or studying a text with a student. Maybe his assistant would have told me to come back another time or maybe I would have poked in while he was on the phone and he would have looked up from his desk to smile, wave, and go back to work. But my polite inner voice that told me that Aaron didn’t have time for me, that voice was wrong about Aaron. He would have loved to see me – not because I personally was any more or less special to him – but because I was one of his students, now colleagues, and when he was with me, he lit up. When he was with me, he asked about my work, seeming to follow up on our last conversation months ago, in a way that made me feel seen and heard. When he was with me, he came in for a hug and then he would stand, hands in his pockets, in a casual, humble way that always surprised me, especially when he became president. When he was with me, he asked about my kiddos, the ones I nursed in his office as Aaron and I studied mishnah together.

Aaron was somehow able to embody immanence and transcendence - a friend and a Talmud scholar, a teacher and a president. I wish I had poked into his office that April day to express my gratitude to him and let him know I was going to miss seeing him. So I will say it here, in these pages - thank you for everything Aaron, I will miss you.  


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