Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, 53, president of HUC-JIR president, killed in plane crash

The 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history, he led the four-campus international institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR/Cleveland Jewish News.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR/Cleveland Jewish News.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, died in a plane crash May 5. He was 53 years old.

Panken was a highly skilled pilot performing a routine flight check near Middletown, N.Y., a spokesperson told the Cleveland Jewish News. Middletown is about 75 miles north of New York City.

According to New York State Police, another person suffered what appeared to be non-life-threatening injuries, reported The Middlebury Times-Herald Record. The crashed in a field in the Town of Wawayanda at about 9 a.m., according to the state police.

Two people were inside the plane; they were taken to Orange Regional Medical Center in the Town of Wallkill, state police said.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history, led the four-campus international institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR’s campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem provide the academic and professional training programs for the Reform movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators and nonprofit management professionals, and offer graduate programs for scholars of all faiths.

He visited the Cleveland area in October 2015 and spoke at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.

“I’m deeply saddened about this news, Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk, senior rabbi at Fairmount Temple in Beachwood told the Cleveland Jewish News. “I have known Aaron Panken since I was 19, visiting HUC-JIR in New York for the first time. By the time I began my studies for the rabbinate, he was an instructor in Talmud and a remarkable force for good within the college-institute.

“He was an incredible leader as president of HUC-JIR. One thing about Aaron is that he showed how he cared so deeply about you. He’d call me to encourage me in difficult moments of my life and rabbinate and to congratulate me in celebratory moments.

“I saw him in Chicago this fall at an HUC-JIR event and again last December at the Reform movement’s biennial convention in Boston, where he gave me a special award for supporting the mentoring of young people and the development of youth leaders in our movement,” continued Nosanchuk. “I will cherish these memories, as I didn’t realize they would be my last of him. I can honestly say I will never ever forget Rabbi Aaron Panken or the Torah he taught me.”

Rabbi Richard A. Block, senior rabbi of the Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood and a former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told the Cleveland Jewish News: “I am utterly devastated by this news. Aaron was a dear, longtime, personal friend and an extraordinarily gifted leader of our Reform movement. Words do not suffice to express my grief. My heart goes out to his wife, Lisa, their children and family, and all who mourn his tragic and untimely death. This is an incalculable loss to the American Jewish community and the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Allison Vann of Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood said “Rabbi Panken’s death is tragic and heartbreaking, and I find myself beyond words.”

Rabbi Steven L. Denker of Temple Emanu El in Orange, said “Rabbi Panken was a truly visionary leader whose youth, energy and extraordinary range of knowledge, skills and talent brought a fresh perspective not only to HUC-JIR and the Reform movement, but truly to all of world Jewry.”

HUC-JIR’s 4,000 active alumni serve the Reform movement’s 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations, representing the largest Jewish denomination in North America and the growing Progressive Movement in Israel.

Panken was elected HUC-JIR president on July 31, 2013, and his appointment became effective Jan. 1, 2014. He was installed in Cincinnati on June 8, 2014.

Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; their children, Eli and Samantha; his parents Beverly and Peter; and a sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, N.J.

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