MAY 6, 2018 – Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, died in a plane crash on May 5, 2018. He was 53 years old.
Panken was a highly skilled pilot performing a routine flight check near Middletown, N.Y., a spokesperson told the Cleveland Jewish News. Middletown 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, reported The Middlebury Times-Herald Record. The crashed in a field in the Town of Wawayanda at about 9 a.m., according to the state police.
Two people were inside the plane; 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.
“I’m deeply saddened about this news, Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk, senior rabbi at Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio. “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.
HUC-JIR’s 4,000 active alumni serve the Reform movement’s 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations, representing the largest Jewish denomination in North America and the growing Progressive Movement in Israel.
Panken was elected HUC-JIR president on July 31, 2013, and his appointment became effective Jan. 1, 2014. He was installed in Cincinnati on June 8, 2014.
Panken is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; their children, Eli and Samantha; his parents Beverly and Peter; and a sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, N.J.