Rabbis across Northeast Ohio offered tributes to Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who died in a plane crash May 5. He was 53.

Panken was a “highly skilled pilot” performing a routine flight check near Middletown. N.Y., Jeanie Rosensaft, a spokesperson for the college institute told the Cleveland Jewish News. Middleton is about 75 miles north of New York City.

According to New York State Police, another person suffered what appeared to be non-life threatening injuries, The Middletown Times-Herald Record reported. Rosensaft said the person was a flight instructor. 

The plane crashed in a field in the Town of Wawayanda at about 9 a.m., according to the state police. The plane was an Aeronca 7AC aircraft that had just taken off from Randall Airport when it crashed, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Two people were inside the plane and they were taken to Orange Regional Medical Center in the Town of Wallkill, state police said.

Panken, the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history, led the four-campus international institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR’s campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem provide the academic and professional training programs for the Reform Movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators and nonprofit management professionals, and offer graduate programs for scholars of all faiths.

He visited the Cleveland area in October 2015 and spoke at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.

“I’m deeply saddened about this news,” said Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk, senior rabbi at Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. “I have known Aaron Panken since I was 19 visiting HUC-JIR in New York for the first time. By the time I began my studies for the rabbinate, he was an instructor in Talmud and a remarkable force for good within the college-institute.

“He was an incredible leader as president of HUC-JIR. One thing about Aaron is that he showed how he cared so deeply about you. He’d call me to encourage me in difficult moments of my life and rabbinate and to congratulate me in celebratory moments.

“I saw him in Chicago this fall at an HUC-JIR event and again last December at the Reform Movement’s biennial convention in Boston, where he gave me a special award for supporting the mentoring of young people and the development of youth leaders in our movement,” Nosanchuk said. “I will cherish these memories as I didn’t realize they would be my last of him. I can honestly say I will never ever forget Rabbi Aaron Panken or the Torah he taught me.”

Rabbi Richard A. Block, senior rabbi of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood and a former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said, “I am utterly devastated by this news. Aaron was a dear, longtime, personal friend and an extraordinarily gifted leader of our Reform movement. Words do not suffice to express my grief. My heart goes out to his wife, Lisa, their children and family, and all who mourn his tragic and untimely death. This is an incalculable loss to the American Jewish community and the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim of The Temple-Tifereth Israel, said, “Aaron had a wisdom beyond his years. As a friend and confidant, as a teacher and leader, as a devoted lover of family and Israel, he always seemed available and approachable.

“At the recent CCAR conference, we were talking about his passion for flying and all the metaphors for life it engenders: takeoffs and landings, hard ones and soft ones, having a plan and reading the changing winds.

“What a tragedy that his life is cut so short and what a devastating loss to his family and the family of the Reform movement. He was a voice of reason and had a readiness to guide so many on their journey. I was in the middle of a series of texts with him to grab some time together when we’d be in the same city. I will miss his brilliant mind and caring friendship. Zecher tzadik livracha, may his righteous memory remain our blessing.”

Rabbi Allison Vann of Suburban Temple-Kol Ami in Beachwood, said, “Rabbi Panken’s death is tragic and heartbreaking and I find myself beyond words.”

Rabbi Shoshana Nyer, director of lifelong learning at Suburban Temple-Kol Ami, said, “Friday marked the 15th anniversary of my ordination and the second anniversary of receiving my master’s in Jewish education. On both of these occasions, I had the honor of being blessed by my teacher, my mentor and my adviser, Rabbi Aaron Panken.

“When I was a rabbinic student, Rabbi Panken was the dean of the New York campus. Whether as my Talmud professor, my senior sermon adviser or in his role as dean, his care for and interest in each student was evident. I still remember his visit to my hospital room when I had major surgery in my fifth year, and he never passed you in the hallway without stopping to ask how you were and truly wanting to know the answer.  

“By the time I went back for my master’s, Rabbi Panken was president of the College Institute. Before he was to bless my cohort at graduation, he met with us more than once for hours to get to know us – what brought us to Jewish education and this program, who we were on a personal level – he wanted to insure, that at our graduation, he was not blessing a group of strangers.

“Rabbi Panken was a visionary leader and a blessing to the College Institute, but I will remember him more for his kind and gentle soul. I am so very shocked and saddened by his tragic and untimely death, but I will carry with me and treasure all of the lessons he taught me, the most important being what it means to be a true mensch. May his memory always be a blessing to all of us who learned from him and all who knew him, especially his family and loved ones.”

Rabbi Steven L. Denker of Temple Emanu El in Orange, said, “Rabbi Panken was a truly visionary leader whose youth, energy and extraordinary range of knowledge, skills and talent brought a fresh perspective not only to HUC-JIR and the Reform Movement but truly to all of world Jewry.”

Rabbi Enid C. Lader of Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland, said, “My heartfelt condolences go out to my colleagues who knew and treasured their friendship with Rabbi Panken. I’m sorry I did not know him, but am saddened by the tragic loss of his openness, wisdom and insightful leadership.”

Rabbi Josh Brown of Temple Israel in Bath Township said, “I remain in shock at this tragic news. Rabbi Panken was an exemplary leader, known best for matching the highest standard of care and concern with his knowledge as a scholar and skills as a teacher. Our community grieves for our immense loss and offers our condolences to Rabbi Panken’s family.”

Panken was an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. He was elected HUC-JIR president on July 31, 2013 and his appointment became effective Jan. 1, 2014. He was installed on June 8, 2014, in Cincinnati.


Publisher’s Note: Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim is a member of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company Board of Directors.

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