Louisville’s Reform Jews recall Rabbi Aaron Panken as a passionate, learned leader

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion since 2014, died in Plane crash Saturday, May 5.

To Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, Aaron Panken was more than a rabbi and scholar; he was a friend.
“I loved how he was able to make talmudic stories and arguments come to life and show how relevant they are to our modern lives and to today’s world,” Ariel-Joel, senior rabbi of The Temple, told Community in an emailed message. “The news about his death is shocking and devastating.”
Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, died in a plane crash Saturday in the Hudson Valley of New York state. He was 53.
The small aircraft carrying Panken – a licensed pilot – crashed in a wooded area in the Town of Wawayanda, not far from the New Jersey border. A passenger, flight instructor Frank Reiss, was injured in the mishap.
“Our movement lost a great leader and an important scholar,” Ariel-Joel said. “Personally, I lost a wonderful teacher whom I learned much from and wanted to keep learning from.”
Panken’s death came one day before he was to ordain this year’s class at HUC-New York. The seminary will ordain a total of 28 rabbis at its three U.S. campuses this year, and six cantors.
Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom knew Panken from her days studying for her master’s degree in religious education at HUC-New York. Panken was the dean of the rabbinic program at the time.
“I remember him having a big smile on his face, both when I saw him in person, or when his name came up in conversation,” she said. “He was a true leader and a mensch.”
Generous with his time, Jacowitz Chottiner shared a story about how Panken once helped her close friend, an emigrant from the former Soviet Union, write her first resume.
“He helped her understand a lot of the culture and gave her a lot of support,” Jacowitz Chottiner said. “She wasn’t even a rabbinic student; she also was an education student.”
David Bloom of Louisville, who grew up in Temple Shalom and is a fourth-year rabbinic student at HUC-Cincinnati, recalled meeting one-on-one with Panken during his first year of study in HUC-Jerusalem in 2014. Recently installed as president, Panken came to Israel to meet individually with the students in the new class.
“He was very open and just listened,” Bloom recalled. “He was interested in what we were doing, how classes were going and what we hoped to get out of them. He also said if we had any questions we could just reach out to him.”
Bloom especially recalled a moment on that visit when Panken was off campus with the class – he thinks it was at the Shalom Hartman Institute – when a siren went off, warning of a rocket attack.
The class retreated to a shelter where some students started to pray. Panken, Bloom said, comforted his classmates.
Bloom, who expected to be ordained by Panken next year, said his loss falls especially hard on this year’s class.
“It’s going to be hard, especially this year for those who are being ordained,” he said. “The people in New York had less than a day [to prepare].”
Panken, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was ordained at HUC in 1991. He worked as an associate rabbi at Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom and earned a doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He also had a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
During his four years as president, he expanded the class sizes of the rabbinic, cantorial and education programs, introduced new areas of study and used technology and online learning to link the four campuses, The New York Times reported.
His success in growing the school didn’t surprise Cantor Kat Hastings, a native of Louisville, who today lives in Houston. She said Panken always wanted top candidates for the rabbinate and cantorate.
“But he didn’t sugarcoat it,” she said. “He wanted people to give good thought to it. He really wanted people who could help klal yisrael to be part of it.”
Panken ordained Rabbi Jessica Wainer of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, a former rabbinic intern at Temple Shalom, in 2016. She recalled the Friday before the ceremony in which he met with her class, teaching them about the ordination rite.
Panken’s joy was “palpable,” she said, as he taught her class about the supporting text for ordination.
“You could see it, feel it, and it was contagious; we could all feel it,” Wainer said. “You could see the pride he felt in each and every one of us, and in what we were about to do for the Jewish community.”
Taking over as president of HUC in 2014, Panken told JTA at that time that he intended to recruit the “best and brightest” to careers in the rabbinate.
He is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; his children Eli and Samantha; his parents Beverly and Peter; and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, New Jersey.
(JTA contributed to this story.)


  1. May Rabbi Panken’s memory always be for a blessing, and may we bring honor to all he has accomplished by living as he lived, during his finest moments.

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