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Aaron Panken Remembered as a Sage, Scholar and Visionary

AaronPankenHundreds of mourners from near and far came to Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale on Tuesday May 8 to pay their respects to Rabbi Aaron Panken, a leader of the Jewish Reform Movement and the twelfth President of Hebrew Union College who died in a plane accident at the age of 53 on Saturday May 5. The synagogue overflowed with visitors, with mourners filling the main sanctuary and spilling over to an adjacent room to watch the proceedings on monitors.

The service was led by colleagues and family members, all who were rabbis and cantors, who knew Panken intimately and were deeply shaken by his loss. They eulogized Panken, noting his deep knowledge of the Talmud, his impact on his colleagues, trainees, family and friends and his vision for the Jewish movement here and around the globe. Both Panken’s sister Melinda Panken and his sister in law Sarah Messinger are rabbis, and they participated and shared more personal comments about the Aaron they knew as a boy, teen, father and friend.

WRT Rabbi Jonathan Blake opened with the question that was on everyone’s mind; saying, “How can this be? He was right here three weeks ago celebrating WRT’s 65th anniversary… He was wise and witty.... Now there are no words, only fathomless grief. When a sage dies, we have no one like him.”

Rabbi Sarah Messinger introduced three speakers; Rabbi Larry Hoffman, author and professor at HUC, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and President of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the former rabbi at WRT who now serves as the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. All three spoke of Panken’s intellect, compassion and humanity.

Hoffman, who worked with Panken at HUC said that Panken had “a double major in vision, competence and intellect and at the same time plain goodness and sweetness.” He called him, “thoughtful, modest and independent,” and said he was a Talmudist who “never stopped studying.” He said that Panken was loved by so many of his students, and exclaimed, “Look how many have come from around the world today.” Noting Panken’s good character, Hoffman said, “One who lives without blame, who does what is right, such a one shall never be shaken…. The tragedy is he was just hitting his stride, just putting the puzzle together when he was taken from us.”

Panken had been scheduled to ordain this year’s class of rabbis and cantors on Sunday May 6, the day after the accident. Hoffman said, “He was planning to ordain the rabbis. He was going to tell them to take a stand, to commit themselves to a better world… On behalf of this college we will complete the sermon for you and give it to your ordainees.” He concluded with a promise, “You remain our rabbi, even in death. We vow that you will not have worked and dreamed in vain.”

Rabbi David Stern said he had “been meaning to ask Aaron a Talmud question this week. Here is the question. The text says that the priest chosen to remove the ashes from the alter – there was no lamp in his hand. Why – he could walk by the light of the flames in the alter? Or to keep his hands unencumbered? I wanted to ask if its good for a rabbi to show up empty handed for the service. … I can’t ask him my question now. I can cite him as my answer. He showed up empty handed everyday, empty handed as in open hearted and open handed.”

Stern discussed Panken’s love of electronics and the opera, and his ability to as an electrical engineer to understand gadgets and fix things. He called Panken “The rarest of breeds – a rabbi who could fix stuff.” He mentioned his love of travel, “to experience and to know more”…. and how he proudly showed Stern his hand steamer to prepare his suits for his many trips. Stern said it was “fun to disagree with him because he was smart, stubborn and practical.” According to Stern, Panken “had a great sense of play and wicked sense of humor.”

Stern discussed Panken’s special relationship with Jack Stern, David’s father, also a former rabbi at WRT. About Panken, Stern said, “My father adored Aaron. Aaron was the favorite Stern child. When the young couple (Aaron and Lisa) showed up they were greeted with a warm embrace and a punch list… the printer, the television, the air conditioner. He had a huge heart and the patience to make it all work. …For all of his achievements – he never stopped being a rabbi to us when my mother was dying and when my father was there alone. He made Jack Stern laugh or made him proud. He could put things together like printer cables and broken hearts. He was a mensch beyond measure.”

Stern continue, “He loved sailing and he loved flying. He had a thing for the water and the wind. I believe he was most at home in the sky and in the water. He has fallen from a Sabbath sky and our hearts are broken. If a bunch of broken hearts together can make things whole, we can try.”

He vowed, “Let Aaron’s example guide our way. These are dark days. He taught us how to sail by a night sky. Good night sweet prince, flights of angels sing you to your rest.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs said he originally met Panken in the 1980’s when Panken interviewed to be his intern. He said he was originally puzzled by Aaron, thinking, “Who is this guy? A degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins – if I needed someone to fix the AV at the synagogue, he was the one. He also played guitar. Either he was a complete misfit or an extraordinary gem of a human being.”

Jacobs said, “Rabbi Panken recruited, taught and mentored a new generation of Jewish leaders. He modeled how to lead a Jewish life. Greatness and goodness flowed forth from this remarkable man.”

He said that Aaron had come to Judaism at an early age, asking his parents to send him to religious school. He met his wife Lisa Messinger at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington. About Aaron he said, “You could have dropped Aaron into any room in our movement. He possessed all of God’s leadership gifts.” He called Aaron’s love of Israel, “full throated and constant,” and said he advocated for a more inclusive and pluralistic Israel.”

He called for everyone to “Be disciples of Aaron. How do Aaron’s disciples conduct themselves? They spend their days loving and pursuing peace. Today this sanctuary is filled with the many disciples of Rabbi Aaron Panken who aspire to bring us to the deep water…Pursue peace and love all of God’s children.”

Jacobs also noted that Panken was unique, “In the Talmud there are some sages that are irreplaceable. Aaron Panken can never ever be replaced.”

Panken’s father Peter Panken shared his stories of watching Aaron grow up. He said that after getting his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins Aaron carefully weighed his decision about a profession, telling his father, “I want a vocation which requires life long learning. I want to spend my time helping other people. I want to teach and mentor other people. I want to be a force for good, a community leader. He thought about medical school or a PhD in engineering but decided that what he wanted to do was at the heart of the rabbi’s profession.” He said that Aaron called his parents everyday, from all over the world and said, “Aaron we will miss your calls and we will miss you our son.”

His sister Rabbi Melinda Panken said that she and her brother “grew up laughing,” and described a joyful home and raucous family dinners. She said, “laughing was Aaron’s coping mechanism.” She looked up to him, and said, “I loved my big brother so much that I would do anything he told me to do.” She continued, “I will especially miss his Seders, 25 charosets, reading the Aramaic, shaking the table when Elijah came in the door, the pounding on the table.”

She then told a story that perhaps foreshadowed Panken’s fate. She said the family was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard when Aaron was eight years old. He was outside riding his bike and they went to check on him but couldn’t find him. They started searching and finally found him at a nearby airstrip, sitting inside a plane. She ended by saying, “Aaron was taken to soon, with too much left undone for our family and the Jewish people.”

Sarah Messinger remembered meeting Aaron “the geeky guy” at Camp Eisner. She called him "genuine, honest and sensitive.” She remembers Aaron admiring her sister Lisa from afar, and told Lisa, “he loved and respect you. You decorated his life with love and laughter.” She told Panken’s children, “You were the jewels that adorned your father’s heart. He will always be with you because you are each the best parts of him. … May his name be a blessing.”

Former Scarsdale resident Cantor Tamara Wolfson, who was ordained on Sunday May 6 at a ceremony at Congregation Emanuel that Panken planned to lead, said, “A few days ago, you taught me that the Talmud says that smicha doesn’t always require laying hands on someone’s head — that it is enough for a community to recognize you as their leader for smicha to be granted. But all I wanted was that moment. You and me before the open ark. You had an ability to bless, to teach, to really hear people, to inspire people — unlike anyone I’ll ever know. I knew I’d wrestle with God forever, but this is a new fight. And I plan to channel all my shock and anger and grief and sadness into being exactly the kind of leader you challenged us all to be through your example. That’s the only thing left to do.”

It was evident that Panken touched so many lives and will be missed first by his family, but also by his Scarsdale friends, his colleagues, his students, and the international Jewish community. Though his life was cut short, he made an extraordinary contribution in the time he was here.

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