Rabbi Panken, president of HUC, dies in plane crash

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, the president of Hebrew Union College, died in a plane crash on Saturday at the age of 53.

Panken, a licensed commercial pilot, was killed while flying a small aircraft in the Hudson Valley area of New York state. MidHudson News reported that the plane crashed in a wooded area in the town of Wawayanda, near the New Jersey border.

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A passenger, Frank Reiss, a flight instructor, was injured.

Panken served as the 12th president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), leading the four-campus international institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism since 2014.

Panken previously served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus, and dean of students. He joined the HUC-JIR faculty in 1995 and taught rabbinic and Second Temple literature, with research interests in the historical development of legal concepts and terms, narrative development, and development of holiday observances.

A statement released by the Hebrew Union College remembered Panken as “a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and exemplary leader of the Reform movement for nearly three decades.”

The college lauded Panken for embedding new technology to support student learning and administration; strengthening recruitment to yield the largest incoming classes in a decade; launching new Jewish education, nonprofit management, entrepreneurship programs and academic partnerships; and invigorating the ties linking the college’s four campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York.

An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Panken earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. He was on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation as well as on the editorial board of Reform Judaism Magazine, and served on the Rabbinical Placement Commission, the Birthright Education Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Ethics Committee, and in a variety of other leadership roles within the Reform movement and the greater Jewish community.

He lectured widely at academic conferences and synagogues throughout North America and as visiting faculty at universities in Australia and China. Prior to teaching at the HUC-JIR, he served as a congregational rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City and as a rabbinical intern at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.

A native of New York City, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s electrical engineering program, Rabbi Panken was a certificated sailor as well as a pilot.

At his inauguration convocation, he said: “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 respectful of other faiths and ideologies.”

Tributes to Panken appeared on Twitter within hours of the news. Israel’s Consul General in New York Dani Dayan said the rabbi had hosted him less than a month ago at the college. “A great thinker,” said Dayan. “A huge loss for the entire Jewish people.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Panken had been his “role model” since their days together in the Reform movement’s youth group.

Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, remembered Panken as a “brilliant Jewish leader, an incredible mensch and a dear friend.”

Panken was to have presided over the ordination of rabbis and cantors at ceremonies in New York on Sunday, which ordained 28 rabbis at three campuses and six cantors.

Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger, his children Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter, and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, New Jersey.

JTA contributed to this report.