As we reach the end of the shloshim thirty-day mourning period, I am finally able to gather my thoughts to share about Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, former President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and my close friend.
Most of us live divided lives, split between the need for a public persona and a private striving for a more intimate authenticity. Rabbis bear the additional, amplified demand of the clergy archetype, a spiritual Rorschach upon which many project their ideals and concerns.
And so, it is a special province for rabbis to spend time amongst ourselves, permitted to let our entrenched guard down, relating to one another as the human beings we were before committing to this vocation– the people we still are in our most essential, protected moments.
This inevitable distance between private persona and public image increases even more when the rabbi is a global leader, one who serves so many as a nurturing mentor, institutional visionary, and symbolic purveyor of tradition. And when one is taken from this life at the pinnacle of powers and prowess, the list of achievements attained, and those unrequited, forges memory of nearly mythic proportions, weighted with the promise of the could-have-been.
I was blessed to call Rabbi Aaron D. Panken z”l a colleague, and fortunate to look to him as a rising leader of our Reform Movement. But I am luckiest to have cherished him as friend for more than three decades, and I grieve a loss that traces the deep contours of that bond. For friends of this nature, duration and faithfulness come rarely in a lifetime, and even in his absence, his imprint impresses.
I met Aaron in that strange and liminal moment of our first summer in Israel upon entering our rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, the seminary at which he would later become President. It was a challenging time of transition, barely adjusted to completing undergraduate studies, uprooted physically, emotionally and spiritually to a life in Israel, embarking upon a journey of sacrifice and service that we could scarcely envision. Our youth and inexperience was obvious and manifest, as we struggled to embrace our launch into both adulthood and this most idiosyncratic of paths. We shared a singular flash in time, still unmoored by the freedom of the inchoate, but increasingly bound by the expectations of what lay ahead. We forged a friendship rooted in what we had been, encompassing what we were becoming.
There were unbridled moments pursuing the excesses of youth, hold overs from our undergraduate exploits, celebrating our temporary lack of encumbrances and exploring the possibilities for new and different kinds of experiences. We embraced the rigors of novel study, traveled to new, exotic locales with an emerging community of classmates, all while laying the foundations for our evolving identities.
While all of us possessed unique qualities and traits, elements that became abundantly familiar in the course of such intense interaction, Aaron exuded an infectious energy and inimitable presence that drew us in and drew us close, inviting us to become co-conspirators in his great assault on a fuller kind of living. He was intellectually omnivorous, passionate for adventure, and compulsive to fulfill the longings of his heart and mind. While most of us were content to satisfy the demands of the curriculum, balanced with the travails of this year of transience, Aaron consumed as many new ideas as he could plumb, immersing deeply into everyday Israeli culture in ways that seemed to defy the physical limits of time and vigor.
There is no looking back upon that first, formative year without reflecting on Aaron’s significant role in it. And as I’ve shaped and been shaped by my distinct rabbinic path, the fidelity of my connection to Aaron, and his conscientiousness in its sustenance, endured, despite the exponential growth of his responsibilities and the pull of myriad demands. It is a testament to his capacity as a person and acumen as a leader that so many feel his loss in personal, impactful ways. But I will always remember the “husky” red head with the stubbled baby-face, driven by an East Coast angst for that which remained undone, assailing me with a sarcastic but-not-too scarring retort which disarmed with a wry smile, charting a course that he alone would tread, beckoning me to follow in a path as singular as his own.
-Rabbi Daniel Weiner