RA Mourns Tragic Death of Jewish Leader Rabbi Aaron Panken

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, RA’s chief executive officer, pays emotional tribute to leader of Reform seminary

On the occasion of the tragic and untimely passing of Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l, President of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Chief Executive Officer of the Rabbinical Conservative movement’s Assembly issued the following statement on behalf of the Rabbinical Assembly:

The Rabbinical Assembly joins the entire Jewish community, worldwide, in mourning the tragic and untimely loss of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. Like so many of us who work professionally in the field of Jewish communal life, I thought of Rabbi Panken as a friend and teacher. I first got to know him when I was a rabbinical student at JTS, teaching in the Hebrew School of Congregation Rodeph Sholom. He was the Assistant Rabbi of the synagogue, and also studying Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the beginning of his journey as a scholar. From those early impressions, he remained always etched in my mind as an exemplar of the rabbi/scholar, a model of the rabbinate with which the 1,700 members of the RA deeply identify.

Having gotten to know him in my early, hectic days as a working rabbinical student, I also therefore deeply appreciated what his leadership meant to the many rabbis who were ordained under his tutelage at Hebrew Union College, as his model of kindness and calm instilled confidence in his students and colleagues and brought honor to the rabbinate. At the same time, his abiding humility remained a constant, even as his institutional and academic achievements predictably and consistently increased over his years in the rabbinate.

In more recent years, working together and collaborating as leaders of our respective institutions, I can honestly say that he was one of my favorite people to work with in our community. Always thoughtful and insightful, he was also frank about his views, consistent in his approach, and thoroughly trustworthy. Any communal effort was edified by his partnership and his leadership. Rabbi Panken was a serious scholar of Talmud and Jewish text and worked, quietly and diligently, in leading his colleagues and students to serious thought and consideration about how to bring the full depth and complexity of Judaism to life for Reform Jews around the world. This is truly a case in which the world is left impoverished by the unfinished work of this significant and very gifted leader.

I join our entire community in expressing my deepest sorrow to Aaron’s family. Pirkei Avot teaches: “All of your actions should be for the sake of Heaven (2:12).” Rabbi Panken’s surely were, and all of us will need to work much harder to endeavor to replace the Torah, sacred work, and acts of lovingkindness that his tragic passing leaves unfinished.