It’s not the kind of professional homecoming Rabbi David Ellenson could have ever expected or wanted.

Almost four-and-a-half years after he stepped down from the presidency of the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, Rabbi Ellenson is returning to that position on a temporary basis following the death of Rabbi Aaron Panken.

Rabbi Panken, who led the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, for four years, was killed May 5 when the plane he was piloting crashed in Orange County in upstate New York.

Rabbi Ellenson, who has served since early 2014 as chancellor emeritus of the school, was named interim president of the institution this week by the HUC-JIR board of governors.

“I feel overwhelmingly sad” stepping into the interim position upon the death of Rabbi Panken, a colleague and close friend for several years, Rabbi Ellenson told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview Monday. He was in Los Angeles this week to officiate at ordination and graduation ceremonies at the HUC campus there.

“This is one of the most bittersweet weeks in my life — my heart is just broken,” he said. “I genuinely loved Rabbi Panken. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this would ever occur.”

As interim president, based at the HUC center in Manhattan, Rabbi Ellenson said he will be responsible for shepherding the school — it has four campuses, including sites in Cincinnati and Jerusalem — through the mourning period and continuing the educational programs and other initiatives begun by Rabbi Panken.

Rabbi Ellenson said a search for a permanent successor will begin “after an appropriate amount of time has passed”; a new president is likely to take office in about six months, he said.

“We are grateful to Rabbi Ellenson for his experienced leadership and commitment to HUC-JIR as we mourn the untimely loss of Rabbi Aaron Panken,” said Andrew Berger, chair of the school’s board of governors. “Rabbi Ellenson’s deep knowledge of our institution and great devotion to our sacred mission will carry us forward.”

Rabbi Ellenson said he will be “more of a caretaker than an initiator” in his temporary appointment. “My job is to preserve” Rabbi Panken’s legacy, he said, adding that Rabbi Panken left HUC “on solid footing” in terms of finances and personnel. “We have a solid structure to continue to move ahead.

“It’s not up to me to introduce any new initiatives” at the school, said the rabbi, who was HUC president from 2001 to 2013. “The mandate … is to grant stability and continuity to the school. Clearly being an interim president is very different than being a permanent president.“I applauded every initiative that Rabbi Panken undertook,” Rabbi Ellenson said. “His organization skills were much greater than mine.”

Rabbi Ellenson, 70, said he had planned to retire this summer from his job as director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

Rabbi Ellenson, who has been the writer or editor of seven books and more than 300 scholarly articles, is an expert on the origins and development of Orthodox Judaism in Germany during the 19th century, the relationship between religion and state in Israel, and American Jewish life.

A graduate of Columbia University, he was ordained by HUC in 1977.

He served for two decades as head of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California, and as a visiting professor at UCLA and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

In 2015 he was appointed distinguished visiting professor in New York University’s Skirball Department of Judaic Studies.

Rabbi Panken, as HUC president, “understood fully that no Jewish community could ever succeed without a great center of learning, and he was determined that HUC-JIR would be such a center for our people,” Rabbi Ellenson wrote in an essay that appears in this issue of The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Ellenson said that as interim president he will not use the office where Rabbi Panken had served. “I’ve requested another office,” he said. “I do not feel comfortable sitting in his office.” 

steve@jewishweek.org