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You are here: Home Section Table People Jewish Leader and Scarsdale Resident Aaron Panken Passes Away at Age 53
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Jewish Leader and Scarsdale Resident Aaron Panken Passes Away at Age 53

paneknThe Scarsdale community is reeling after the tragic loss of a beloved neighbor, synagogue member, Rabbi and leader of the Jewish community. Aaron Panken of Scarsdale, the President of Hebrew Union College passed away on Saturday morning May 5 at the age of 53. The small plane that he was piloting crashed just after takeoff in Orange County. Panken was a certified pilot who was flying with an instructor who emerged alive from the accident.

In an email to the congregation of Westchester Reform Temple, Rabbi Jonathan Blake explained Panken’s importance to the Jewish community. He wrote, “Rabbi Panken was a giant among Reform Jewish leaders and intellectuals. He was the 12th President of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, the world's oldest institute of higher Jewish learning, and the seminary for Reform Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, and a premier training ground for many other Jewish professionals. In this capacity he oversaw four campuses, in Jerusalem, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York, since his inauguration in 2014, following many distinguished positions of leadership at the College-Institute dating back to his faculty appointment in 1995.”

A notice from the Hebrew Union College says the following about Panken: “Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades. As a product of the Reform Movement’s camps, youth movement, and seminary, his passionate commitment to Reform Judaism, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people worldwide inspired his efforts to ensure HUC-JIR’s academic excellence in fulfilling its sacred mission. As HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Panken implemented his transformative vision by forging strategic planning initiatives: embedding new technology in support of student learning and administration, strengthening recruitment to yield the largest incoming classes in a decade, launching new Jewish education, nonprofit management, and entrepreneurship programs and academic partnerships, and invigorating the ties linking HUC-JIR’s four campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York and their larger communities and regions.”

Linda and Joseph Simon, friends of Panken, said, "Aaron Panken was a true Renaissance man. He was a rabbi, a leader of international repute in the Reform Jewish world and president of Hebrew Union College. He was an electrical engineer, and avid boater, and a pilot. He liked lively conversation over drinks and a game of darts. He was a learned scholar, teacher and mentor. He was a lively and engaging commentator of Bible and Talmud who could make even the most opaque passages of text come to life. Most of all he was a caring, kind and thoughtful friend, and a loving husband and father. He made everyone who knew him feel special and embraced by him. His loss is unfathomable, and he will be forever missed by his many friends, admirers, colleagues, and loved ones."

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin sent her condolences; "Rabbi Aaron Panken, who tragically died in a plane crash on Saturday, was a gifted teacher and community leader, and will be sorely missed. For those of us lucky enough to have studied with him, we will always remember his intellect, enthusiasm and personal warmth. My heart and prayers go out to Lisa and his grieving family."

The family is well known in Scarsdale where Panken’s wife Lisa Messinger grew up and is a leader in her own right. She is the past President of Westchester Reform Temple, Chair of the Major Gifts Committee for the Scarsdale Library, a Director of the Scarsdale Adult School and a former member of the Scarsdale Bowl Committee. Panken is survived by Lisa, his two children, Eli and Samantha, his parents Beverly and Peter and sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, NJ.

The tragedy hit as congregants of Westchester Reform Temple and Scarsdale friends were still grappling with the death of five members of the Steinberg family, who also passed away in the crash of a small plane, on December 31, 2017.

Funeral services will be observed at Westchester Reform Temple on Tuesday, May 8th at 1:00 PM. A live webstream of the service will be available on the temple’s website at www.wrtemple.org.

If you would like to share your rememberances, email us at scarsdalecomments@gmail.com and we will add them, or feel free to comment below.

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