National News

President of Jewish Seminary Killed in Plane Crash in Hudson Valley

Posted May 6, 2018 4:44 p.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2018 4:48 p.m. EDT

The president of a leading Jewish seminary died Saturday morning after the small plane he was piloting crashed about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan, according to the institution.

The death of the president, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was announced by Jean Bloch Rosensaft, a spokeswoman for the seminary, late Saturday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said an Aeronca 7AC aircraft crashed just after takeoff from Randall Airport in Orange County, New York, on Saturday morning. FAA officials said two people were aboard the plane but did not release their names and conditions. A spokesman for the New York State Police did not immediately respond to a request for additional information.

But Rosensaft confirmed that Panken, 53, had been killed in the crash. In an interview, she said he was a “highly skilled pilot” who had been on what she called a routine flight check with an instructor. The Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, said the second person on the plane had injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening.

Panken was elected to serve as the 12th president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2013 and was installed the next year, according to a news release announcing his death.

He was responsible for leading its four campuses — in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York City and Jerusalem — which provide academic and professional training programs in Reform Judaism for rabbis, educators and nonprofit managers, as well as graduate programs for scholars of all faiths.

“Rabbi Panken was a distinguished rabbi and scholar, dedicated teacher and exemplary leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades,” the seminary said.

As president, Panken was credited with adding new technology, strengthening recruitment, starting new programs and bolstering ties between the four campuses and their communities.

“For me, Reform Judaism has always symbolized what I consider to be the best of Judaism — firmly rooted in our tradition, yet egalitarian, inclusive of patrilineal Jews and intermarried families, welcoming to the LGBT community, politically active, and respectful of other faiths and ideologies,” he said at his inauguration convocation.

A native of New York City, Panken graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s electrical engineering program and earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. He served as a congregational rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York and as a rabbinical intern at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, before he began teaching at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the statement said.

He was ordained by the institute in 1991, joined the faculty in 1995, and took on various leadership roles in the years that followed.

He is survived by his wife, Lisa Messinger; children, Eli and Samantha; parents, Beverly and Peter; and sister, Rabbi Melinda Panken of Congregation Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, New Jersey.

While presiding over the graduation ceremonies this month he noted that the world was “particularly challenging and painful” in a way that “transcends anything I have seen in my lifetime.”

“But here’s the thing,” he continued. “The Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived and built again and again and again.”