At a funeral service at Westchester Reform Temple overflowing with attendees and emotion Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi David Stern, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, recalled his friend, Rabbi Aaron Panken. He described him as brilliant, kind and compassionate, with a sense of wonder that resulted in his traveling the world. “He was most at home in the sky and in the water,” Rabbi Stern said, noting his friend’s love of flying and sailing. “He has fallen from the sky, and our hearts are broken.”
Rabbi Panken, an experienced pilot and sailor, died this weekend at the controls of an Aeronca 7AC aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Randall Airport in Orange County,
Rabbi Stern, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a longtime professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (who taught and later was a colleague of Rabbi Panken), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the movement, and family members eulogized the 53-year-old president of HUC, who served in his post for the last four years.
Rabbi Melinda Panken, sister of Aaron and senior rabbi of Temple Shaarei Emeth In Manalapan, NJ, and Rabbi Sarah Messinger, sister-in-law of Aaron and a member of the clergy of Congregation Shireinu in Gladwyne, PA, offered heartfelt insights and flashes of humor.
The rabbis noted how Rabbi Panken, whose college degree was in electrical engineering and doctorate was in the Talmud, somehow combined the intellect and precision of a scientist and scholar with the warmth and caring of a spiritual leader. “He was a rabbi who could put things together,” Rabbi Stern said, not just machines but broken hearts as well. “He was the best of us.”
During his presidency, he strengthened the ties between HUC’s four campuses, worked to increase the quality and quantity of the school’s student body and teaching staff and brought a spirit of renewal to the institution and beyond.
“Aaron was,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote this week in his Religious News Service column, “the sweet prince of our movement.”
Rabbi Hoffman’s celebratory retirement dinner for his 45 years of teaching liturgy, worship and ritual at HUC was postponed this week in the wake of Rabbi Panken’s death. In his eulogy, he noted that Rabbi Panken had been planning to address the graduating class of rabbinic and cantorial students of HUC on Sunday. The basis of the talk was the phrase seen on the arks of many synagogues: “Know before whom you stand.”
Rabbi Panken’s message: to be prepared to stand up for what is right.
“We will complete your sermon… and remember who was doing the standing,” Rabbi Hoffman said. He movingly vowed that Rabbi Panken’s students and colleagues will do all in their power to ensure that their teacher and friend’s work and dreams were not in vain.
May his memory be a blessing.