Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who died tragically in a plane crash this past Saturday, was a rare presence on the Jewish religious and political scene: A congenial radical, or, if one prefers, a moderate absolutist.
Rabbi Panken held strong, unambiguous beliefs on a series of issues at the fore of the Jewish community’s agenda, including Israel-Diaspora relations and full egalitarianism for all Jews, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. But, like his predecessor, Rabbi David Ellenson, he was able to convey his views without being confrontational or dismissive of other opinions. Rather, he exuded a confident decency, a sense that his convictions were rooted in a personal integrity that allowed for disagreement but commanded respect.
“For me,” he said at his inauguration as HUC-JIR President, “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.”
I was privileged to meet with Rabbi Panken many times over the years, at times to discuss Holocaust related issues and at others the archives of the World War II archives of the World Jewish Congress that are located in HUC-JIR’s Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. Inevitably, he was interested, fully conversant with the subject matter under discussion, inquisitive, and focused on advancing the conversation so as to make it productive to the Jewish community as a whole.
What struck me the most each time we spoke was his genuine love for the institution he headed, the State of Israel as an integral, central element of the Jewish people generally and Reform Judaism specifically, and his insistence on representing absolute principles forcefully but with the knowledge that these principles had to be seen in a broader context.
His response to Israel-Diaspora tensions was to strengthen the Diaspora’s connections to the State of Israel, to broaden HUC-JIR’s presence in the Jewish State by dramatically expanding its Jerusalem campus, and to promote a mutual understanding as the prerequisite for what he considered an essential relationship.
Less than a week ago, at HUC-JIR’s New York graduation ceremonies on May 3, he explained that in spite of many seemingly draconian challenges,
We are a people of action and courage, of innovation and fearlessness, of adaptation and endless creativity. . . . 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.
May Rabbi Panken’s wife Lisa, their children Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter, his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken, and their entire family be comforted by the knowledge that their remarkable husband, father, son, and brother embodied and fulfilled the mitzvah of Tikun Olam, of repairing his world, whenever and wherever he could, and that he set the gold standard of what it means to be a teacher, a leader, a true, committed Jew, and, above all, an exemplary mensch.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, April 2021).