Head of Reform Seminary Killed in Plane Crash
National News

Head of Reform Seminary Killed in Plane Crash

Rabbi Aaron Panken, who had presided over graduation ceremonies Thursday, was supposed to lead an ordination today.

Updated Monday, 7 a.m.: The funeral will be held Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Westchester Reform Temple and will be streamed live through the congregation’s website.

Original story below

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the president of the four-campus Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was killed in a plane crash Saturday morning, May 5, in Middletown, N.Y. He was 53.

The Aeronca 7AC aircraft carrying him and one other man crashed nose-first into some woods shortly after takeoff from Randall Airport in the Hudson Valley, ABC7NY and CBS New York reported.

Rabbi Panken, who lived in the area, was a licensed pilot, and MidHudsonNews reported that he was flying the small yellow plane dating to the 1940s. His passenger, Frank Reiss, was a flight instructor and survived with injuries that required hospitalization, MidHudsonNews said.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Rabbi Aaron Panken was the 12th president of HUC-JIR. (Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR)

Rabbi Panken had led HUC-JIR since Jan. 1, 2014, as the 12th president in its 143 years. The institution, with campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, trains the Reform movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators and nonprofit professionals and offers graduate programs for people of all faiths.

“Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher, and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades,” HUC-JIR said in announcing his death. “As a product of the Reform Movement’s camps, youth movement, and seminary, his passionate commitment to Reform Judaism, to the State of Israel, and to the Jewish people worldwide inspired his efforts to ensure HUC-JIR’s academic excellence in fulfilling its sacred mission.”

His last official duties came Thursday, May 3, when he presided over graduation ceremonies at the New York campus, HUC-JIR said. The related ordination ceremony started amid sorrow at 9 this morning at Congregation Emanu-El in New York.

“Our president, our teacher, our colleague, our friend. It will take us a while to formulate the words to express what we are feeling,” the opening speaker told a crowd that was mourning at an event held for celebration.

Social media filled with comments mourning Rabbi Panken’s loss Saturday and Sunday, such as:

  • “What a tremendous loss for the JEWISH world. Rabbi Panken had a warm heart and was a true mensch,” Rabbi Erin Boxt, now at Temple Beth-El in Knoxville and formerly at Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb, posted on Facebook.
  • “I can still see Aaron in the front of the conference room at my former law firm – not only teaching us, but challenging us to think harder about the future of the Jewish community,” the Schusterman Foundation’s Seth Cohen wrote on Facebook “with an extremely heavy heart” from Jerusalem. “All losses are painful, this loss is one of those that are immeasurable.”
  • “This is simply devastating news,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tweeted. “Rabbi Aaron Panken was a brilliant Jewish leader, an incredible mensch, and a dear friend.”
  • “Tremendously saddened,” tweeted Dani Dayan, the Israeli consul general in New York, who added that Rabbi Panken had hosted him at the college in April.
  • “Words do not encompass the depths of sadness felt at the tragic loss of Rabbi Aaron Panken,” ARZA tweeted.
  • “Rabbi Aaron Panken has been my role model since we were in CRaFTY. There are no words to express the depth of this loss for his family, the Jewish community, and the world,” tweeted Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Congregation B’nai Torah Rabbi Joshua Heller offered condolences on his Facebook feed to his Reform colleagues, to which the replies included this from Camp Coleman Director Bobby Harris: “A true mensch and extraordinary leader — he touched so many lives.”

Shock this morning.

JTA’s report on the crash has more tributes to Rabbi Panken.

Rabbi Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; his children, Eli and Samantha; his parents, Beverly and Peter; and his sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, N.J.

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