Stephen Wise Free Synagogue deeply mourns the passing of Rabbi Aaron Panken, our beloved friend, teacher, and mentor. We send our profound condolences to Aaron’s wife, Lisa Messinger; his children, Eli and Samantha; his parents and Stephen Wise members, Beverly and Peter; and his sister and our colleague, Rabbi Melinda Panken.
Aaron was the best of us. He was a deeply learned scholar, an engaging and charismatic teacher, and a loyal and trusted friend. He was a magnificent president of the HUC-JIR. He was a calm and steady leader, brilliant, personable, and kind at the same time. I saw these qualities in him early on, when our years at the seminary overlapped. Already as a student, Aaron was beloved by all of us.
As a youth, Rabbi Panken grew up in our synagogue. He returned every year to share Purim with our congregation. I last saw him in his office several weeks ago. With all the cares and burdens of leadership, he was the same engaging friend. He spoke with me about his love for Israel and his passion for, and confidence in, the next generation of rabbis.
The passing of our friend is a profound loss to the College-Institute, the Reform movement, and to the Jewish people. His brief tenure as our leader will be remembered as a joyous era of growth, creativity, and optimism. Those of us who knew Aaron and loved him are grateful for the time we had. He was an unforgettable soul.
Aaron spoke often about his passion for flying. You could sense that there was something liberating for Aaron about flying high in the sky, above the trials and tribulations of our earthly existence.
The World War II fighter pilot, John Magee, penned this poem a few months before he was killed in a mid-air collision in the skies of Britain:
Oh! I’ve slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dream of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high un-trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
May it be some consolation to Aaron’s family and to we who loved him, that he has slipped the surly bonds of earth, and high in the sunlit silence, in the un-trespassed sanctity of space, touched the face of God.