The Reform Jewish community in Baltimore was one of many across the nation that was rocked by the sudden and tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken earlier this month. Panken, who was the 12th president in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s 143-year history, was 53.
Although Rabbi Jessy Gross, senior director for Jewish learning and life at the JCC of Greater Baltimore and founder of Charm City Tribe, was ordained a year before Panken became president of HUC-JIR, he did oversee her interview to be accepted into the college. For her, Panken exemplified the strengths of the Reform movement.
“He epitomized everything that was great about what it means to be a Reform Jew and what is inspiring about wanting to serve the Jewish people as a Reform rabbi,” said Gross.
Along with five colleagues, Gross made the trip to New York on May 8 to be at Panken’s funeral. She described it as both “beautiful and brutal.”
“It was comforting to have so many people who are used to leading others out of grief to be in a position to grieve together,” she said. “We are always rabbis, and sometimes we have to put our own need to grieve to the side, or compartmentalize it in order to be there for everyone else. For that couple of hours that we were together, even the rabbis who were speaking were permitted to grieve.”
Panken grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was ordained by HUC, worked as an associate rabbi at Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom and earned a doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. He also had a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
Along with Gross, Rabbi Andy Gordon of Bolton Street Synagogue and Rabbi Sarah Marion of Temple Oheb Shalom also attended HUC at different points in Panken’s career. Gordon expressed admiration for the singularity of Panken’s appreciation for Talmud and his approach to teaching it.
“What I loved about him is he had a passion for Talmud and rabbinic literature,” said Gordon. “He had a real striving to not only understand the text in the way it was written and the historical nature of it, but also to make the text meaningful to us today, and how it can impact us as Jews today.”
Panken was known for his ability to make students at HUC feel welcome, often inviting them into his home. Marion remembers when Panken invited her class to his house to celebrate the end of the semester.
“It’s a tradition he’s done with every class,” she said. “The way he welcomed us into his home was so personal and informal. He was just such a mensch, such a warm mensch, he just wanted us to feel welcomed and loved.
“He went out of his way to get to know everyone and made it known every student was loved and cared for.”
Panken was to have presided over the ordination of rabbis and cantors at ceremonies in New York on Sunday, May 6. This year, the seminary will ordain 28 rabbis at three campuses, and six cantors.
At separate graduation ceremonies in New York on May 4, Panken told students: “For years, the Reform movement has stood for what is right and good, and I challenge our graduates today to do the same.”
“He really had a vision of where Judaism was moving, and about what the Jewish community and the rabbis of tomorrow would look like,” said Gordon. “The Jewish life of a generation or two ago is going to be much different than the Judaism of the future.”
Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; his children, Eli and Samantha; his parents, Beverly and Peter; and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken.