Seminary’s New Leader to Help Shape Reform Judaism

January 27, 2014



though he has long been involved with the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken says that in the months before he became its president, on January 1, he appreciated getting a crash course in leading it.

For that, he turned to his friend Rabbi David Ellenson, who had led the institution since 2001 and is now chancellor. “He turned on the fire hose, and I drank as fast as I could,” Rabbi Panken says.

As leader of the largest Jewish seminary in North America, Rabbi Panken will play an influential role in charting the course of the Reform Jewish movement, which has 1.5 million members in 900 congregations in the United States and Canada.

The college, with 400 students, produces more rabbis and cantors for Reform Judaism than does any other institution. It also educates and trains educators, counselors, and managers of Jewish nonprofit organizations. Its doctoral programs in Hebrew letters and pastoral counseling are open to students of all faiths.

New York City, where Rabbi Panken lives, is the site of one of the college’s four campuses. The others are in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. All rabbinical and cantorial students attend the Jerusalem campus for their first year of studies, and they can expect to find the college’s president there for several weeks each year.

Reform Judaism, which is the dominant branch of the Jewish faith in North America, has registered significant growth during the last decade in Israel, where it had previously struggled to gain a foothold.

“There is now a tremendous sense that there is more than one way of being Jewish in Israel,” says Rabbi Panken

Israel today has more than 30 Reform congregations, compared with two or three just 10 years ago, he says.

Rabbi Panken, who is 49, says he did not grow up in a particularly religious household. His parents “would not have belonged to a synagogue” if not for him. In fifth grade, he decided to attend a religious school, and from there he experienced a typical Jewish youth, in which he was guided by a then-novel kind of 
rabbi: Sally J. Priesand, the first American woman so ordained.

“She was my rabbi,” he says. “I was in the first generation to conceive of a woman rabbi as completely natural and appropriate.”

Last year Hebrew Union College graduated an equal number of male and female rabbis.

After obtaining a degree in electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, Rabbi Panken embarked on rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College. His work in Jewish youth programs inspired him to take that path, he says. After ordination, in 1991, he served congregations in Manhattan and Scarsdale, N.Y., while studying for a doctoral degree in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

At Hebrew Union College since 1995, he has taught courses that draw on his expertise in rabbinic and Second Temple literature, particularly as it relates to the historical development of legal concepts and terms, approaches to narrative, and holiday observances.

At only 32 years of age, he became the college’s dean of students, and at 34 dean of the New York campus. In 2005, University Press of America published his book, The Rhetoric of Innovation: Self-Conscious Legal Change in Rabbinic Literature.

Rabbi Panken hopes to steer more students to the rabbinate rather than more-lucrative fields, like law and medicine; to improve methods of teaching Hebrew to American students; and to make the college’s faculty members more-prominent “representatives of thoughtful Reform Judaism.”

In general, he says, “we’re thinking more broadly about how we place graduates,” whether as family counselors or modern-day rabbis who may, for example, spend time spreading the word about the Reform movement in bookstores, coffee shops, and bars rather than at only at temples.

As he describes his plans, Rabbi Panken invokes a metaphor he draws from his passion for flying as well as for sailing. He has been a certified pilot for 20 years.

“I often find that things I’ve learned in the air or at sea apply to my life in education and research,” he says. “One of the great metaphors of life is the metaphor of navigation. You have to assess the conditions around you, consider the hazards and opportunities. Is the wind going with you? What is the best way to get there?”