2018-05-23 / Religion Column

Recalling Rabbi Aaron Panken and his inspirational life

RABBI BENJAMIN DAVID
Adath Emanu- El

The holiday of Shavuot, which we celebrated earlier this week, has us recall that fateful moment when Moses brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai to the Jewish people waiting below. Befitting his selfless character, Moses shared with them the value and enduring beauty of Torah. They were a vagabond, tired people, and here Moses would once again grant them direction and hope.

I wanted to use this space to tell you about someone who embodied the intellect and moral courage of Moses, even the enduring sagacity of the Torah itself. My beloved teacher, Rabbi Aaron Panken, perished in a plane crash several weeks ago. He was 53 years old. He leaves behind two children and a grieving wife, Lisa.

Aaron was more than a leading rabbi; he had a PhD from New York University and a degree in engineering. He had served as dean of the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College until the summer of 2014, when he was elevated to the position of president. He would become the school’s 12th president in its near 150-year history. As president, he oversaw four campuses, and helped guide the Reform seminary in its quest to train future rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal leaders for an increasingly complex world. Aaron served on multiple boards and commissions. He was an ardent Zionist, a master of Talmud, a skilled writer and orator. He recently authored “The Rhetoric of Innovation,” which explores how change is inherent to Judaism and always has been.

But Aaron was so much more than a list of degrees and professional affiliations. I have spent a lot of time beside people at the end of their lives. In hospice, people rarely recount their resumes. Rather, they reflect on relationships, love, times of genuine fulfillment and gratitude. Aaron, I suspect, would want to be remembered less for his academic achievements and more for the many lives he changed, including mine.

When he made a recruiting visit to Camp Harlam in the summer of 1996, he was a young rabbi and I was a sunburnt college kid with scraggly hair. He offered to meet after lunch with anyone considering the rabbinate. I signed up for my 15-minute slot. We sat in the pagoda and I told him that I was looking forward to applying once I graduated. I found him to be gracious and disarming from the start. Fast forward three years and we were in his office for my admission interview, remembering that July day back at camp. Over the years Aaron and I talked about books. He contributed an inspiring essay to my anthology. He gave good advice. He complimented people and put them at ease. He was funny. He was kind. I’m going to miss him a lot. We all will.

Shavuot reminds us that our embrace of Torah should extend beyond scholarship and knowledge. This holiday in particular urges us to see our Jewish lives less as a cerebral exercise and more as an opportunity to bring wholeness to others and the often-broken world in which we live. This is how Aaron lived and how we might endeavor to live too, all the more so in a world of divisiveness and prejudice.

May we be moved by the great sages who came before us; those who shared their understanding of Torah and Jewish life with us. May we know blessing and faith now and always. Amen.

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