Rabbi Aaron Panken, Reform Judaism seminary president, dies in plane crash at 53

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Rabbi Aaron Panken, at his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y. | Paul O. Colliton Studio, Inc. via AP

Rabbi Aaron Panken, who as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was a leading figure in Reform Judaism, has died in a plane crash.

Rabbi Panken, 53, who lived in Mamaroneck, N.Y., was killed when a small plane in which he was a passenger crashed just after taking off Saturday from Randall Airport in Middletown, N.Y., about 70 miles northwest of New York City, according to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute said.

Rabbi Panken was the 12th president in the 143-year history of the seminary and held that post since 2014. He oversaw its four campuses — in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York — which train rabbis, cantors and others in the Reform Jewish movement.

He was known for his support of Reform Judaism in Israel.

“Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades,” according to a written statement from the seminary. “He was a staunch advocate for religious pluralism in Israel and was proud to have ordained the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi graduating from HUC-JIR’s Israeli Rabbinical Program on Nov. 16, 2017. It was his vision to renovate and transform the Jerusalem campus into a dynamic educational and cultural center for the larger public. He exponentially increased the number of Israelis studying for the rabbinate, as educators pastoral caregivers and interfaith teachers for tolerance on the Jerusalem campus.”

At a ceremony after he took the job, Rabbi Panken said: “For me, Reform Judaism has always symbolized what I consider to be the best of Judaism — firmly rooted in our tradition, yet egalitarian, inclusive of patrilineal Jews and intermarried families, welcoming to the LGBT community, politically active, and respectful of other faiths and ideologies.”

A New York City native, Rabbi Panken previously served a congregations there. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University in electrical engineering and had a commercial pilot’s license.

Last week, he had presided over graduation ceremonies in New York. Speaking then, he said: “We now live in a world in which truth is distorted, basic institutions of American life like the press, the courts, the electoral system, the FBI, the beautiful mosaic of immigration that made this country what it is, the dignity and value of public leadership and civil service, egalitarianism and a woman’s right to choose and so many others, are threatened in ways we simply could not have imagined a mere two years ago. We see countries reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times.

“But here’s the thing: The Jewish people and our religious friends of other faiths have seen this before, and we have lived through 1hrived and built again and again and again.”rs include his wife Lisa Messinger, children Eli and Samantha, parents Beverly and Peter and a sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken.

A funeral service is planned Tuesday in Scarsdale, N.Y., at Westchester Reform Temple, which will livestream it at www.wrtemple.org.


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