Rabbi Aaron Panken, 49, the newly tapped president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, likes to mention that he was trained as an electrical engineer and is an amateur pilot. It’s his way of saying he’s tech-savvy, a focus he’s likely to bring to the job as he takes over the Reform seminary at a time of great educational change.
Rabbi Panken, who held pulpit positions at Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side and at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, has served as vice president for strategic initiatives at HUC, dean of the New York campus and dean of students. Rabbi Panken, who will be the 12th president in the school’s 138-year history, takes over as president and CEO of the college’s four campuses on Jan. 1. He was ordained by HUC in New York in 1991 and earned a doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, where his research focused on legal change in rabbinic literature.
The Jewish Week caught up with him on Thursday afternoon.
Jewish Week: What is the state of the Reform movement today, knowing that in the last New York population survey the movement was found to be losing members?
Rabbi Panken: The movement has tremendous strength across the country; we have close to 900 congregations nationwide, most of them led by HUC alums. But we are witnessing a big change in the way religion operates, in the way people gather. Getting people into congregational settings is more complicated these days. People are gathering in smaller settings, in other kinds of groupings and online.
And I already see our movement adapting to these changes. A student of ours was recently hired by a synagogue, but they said to her, “Don’t come to work in the building.” So she met people in bookstores and other places like that. It’s that kind of creative outreach that is going to make the liberal movements sing.
If that’s the case, why do you need four physical buildings – the campus in New York and the ones in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem?
We’ve had many conversations about the way HUC is structured. Now, with Rabbi [David] Ellenson [the former HUC president is becoming chancellor] having put us on a firmer financial footing, we realize that each campus really brings important resources to those places in the country. The Midwest is not the same as New York, and so we’re meeting Jews where they are. That is the big strength of the college. Plus the progressive movement in Israel is really beginning to gain ground in a serious way.
How do you see the education of rabbis-to-be changing?
Certain things have to remain the same in terms of the authenticity of training rabbis and thought leaders. You need a good grasp of Jewish texts, of course, and Jewish history and Hebrew; you need to be able to engage in the ongoing conversation about Jewish thought that has gone on through the centuries. That’s the core.
But the job of a rabbi is changing. We’re very strong in pastoral care and counseling; I think we do a great job teaching the skills rabbis will need in their interactions with families. You have to be savvy in these interactions. All of the changes in society affect the way rabbis work — the rising divorce rate, intermarriage, families in which both parents work.
There are major changes going on new in the way people relate to one another — social media, small-group gatherings, the use of technology for Bible study, for instance. We’re currently teaching in a cross-campus way with dedicated video rooms. We’ve got a Jewish studies portal online. Lots of alumni are continuing their Torah studies with one another by Skype. We’ll continue to expand on these kinds of things.
What about your first priorities?
OK, this is only my second day, but I think we need to do a better job getting HUC’s message out — that we’re an intellectual center and thought leader. We have to get people to realize what an incredible faculty we have and the resources we have. We have to get people to understand how meaningful it is to be a rabbi-educator. It’s a question of presence. We have to show up in the places where young people are.
And we have to do a much better job of follow-through with students in high school and college. It’s not been good enough. We have to better penetrate those markets, especially since those students will be at the age when they are making vocational decisions.
Finally, we have to focus on reaching out beyond the four walls of the campus.