Encountering a Man for all Seasons: Rabbi Aaron Panken

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

I did not know Aaron Panken’s habits of religious practice, but what I did understand was that he found in every experience a pathway to holiness. His death happened in nature. Some time ago, Aaron had occasion to tape a message about taking up his new interest in glider aircraft. What he spoke about was the awe he felt when encountering nature and more directly, the art of negotiating the natural elements around him when airborne. He would often invite me to fly with him in the various aircraft he had learned to master.

Aaron Panken was a man for all seasons. An accomplished pilot, a licensed sailor, a committed Jewish scholar and teacher of Torah, and the leader of a historic seminary. I found Aaron to be a man of this age, yet his scholarship would be rooted in Rabbinic and Second Temple literature. His research interests encompassed the historical development of legal concepts and terms and a focus on the development of holiday observances. His scholarly interests informed his contemporary understanding of Judaism.

His mind was linear in keeping with his formal, early training as an engineer. Ideas mattered to him. But it was in the design and implementation of these concepts, where Aaron’s analytical strengths emerged and how his orientation would be focused. If his capacity for reason was dominant to his persona, his humor and humanity shaped his soul.

His Presidency of the College-Institute was to be a brief four years, but his association with HUC-JIR would encompass much of his adult life. First, as a student, later as a member of the faculty, campus dean, vice president and ultimately as its 12th president. He was a child of and ultimately a spokesperson for Reform Judaism. Of all of HUC’s past leaders, he may have been the most deeply grounded in this movement’s various dimensions. Aaron celebrated Reform Judaism.

Carrying forward what his predecessor, David Ellenson, had defined as core, Aaron was committed to Israel, pressing the presence of the Movement and the College as a critical voice in the story of the Jewish State.

By all measure of time Aaron Panken’s legacy as an institutional leader will be seen as brief but his impact will be judged as significant. His focus on the strategic, his commitment to technology, and his drive to help ensure the College’s financial stability will be seen as core elements of his contribution to the seminary that he loved.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Affairs, HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.