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Engineer of Innovation

New Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion President Aaron D. Panken, an engineer turned rabbi, shares his blueprint for a dynamic seminary that is the intellectual center of global Progressive Judaism.

On January 1, 2014, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D. assumed the presidency of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s global seminary, providing academic and professional training for rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, as well as graduate programs for scholars of all faiths. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s electrical engineering program, Rabbi Panken was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1991 and received his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. As rabbinical intern and rabbi, he has served at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, respectively, before going on to serve the College-Institute in a variety of leadership roles: faculty member, dean of students, dean of the New York campus, and vice president for Strategic Initiatives. Author of The Rhetoric of Innovation (which explores legal change in rabbinic texts) and articles in leading scholarly journals, he has lectured at academic conferences, universities, and synagogues throughout North America and served as a visiting faculty member at universities in Australia and China.

You have just been elected to one of the top leadership positions in the Reform Movement. Would you describe yourself as one who has come up through the ranks?

Very much so. It all began when I was in the fifth grade. Inexplicably, one afternoon as I walked home from school in Manhattan, I entered the Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Amsterdam Avenue.

“I’d like to go to religious school,” I told the receptionist. The next thing I knew, the cantor appeared and asked, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to go to religious school,” I repeated. “That’s lovely,” he said. “Could I talk to your parents about that?”

Sitting me down later that day, my parents said, “Aaron, we’d prefer that you to go to a place where what they teach is a little closer to what we believe.” And so, starting at age 11, I attended religious school at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. I became a bar mitzvah there; eventually became president of CRaFTY (NFTY’s New York City region); and went on to spend summers at Eisner Camp, where I met my wife Lisa. From then on, it was clear to me that I was going to be thoroughly involved in Jewish life.

Yet you majored in electrical engineering.

Yes. The systematic approach involved in engineering has always fascinated me. When you have a problem to solve or want to design something new, you plan, build, test, and revise. Eventually, you have a working product that actually does what you would like it to do. This careful process, a kind of planful innovation that carries you from nascent idea to functional outcome, is a methodology I try to bring to everything I do. It truly applies in almost every corner of life.

What, then, led you to pursue religion?

Though I was doing fascinating work in two biomedical engineering labs at Johns Hopkins Medical School, designing small computer systems that helped analyze neural control of the kidneys and supporting cardiovascular experiments, I realized that as an engineer I would be spending the vast majority of my time in a laboratory with at most two or three other people. I wanted meaningful learning and the kind of interactions with people I’d enjoyed during my Jewish youth group days. I also felt that something else was missing—something I could only describe as “real work” within a community. So, the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I decided to find a position in the Jewish community to test out if this might be a path for my life.

As a youthful-looking 19-year-old, I applied to be regional youth director of NFTY’s Mid-Atlantic Federation of Temple Youth. They hired me on one condition: that I grow a beard; otherwise, they said, the 14- to 18-year-olds I would be advising might not take me seriously. I grew the beard and got the job.

After two great years, I came to the conclusion that the rabbinate was the right path for me—it offered precisely the right combination of community involvement, intellectual challenge, teaching, and pastoral care. So I applied to HUC-JIR and began my studies in Jerusalem in 1986.

What were your HUC-JIR studies like?

I was deeply influenced by my professors and their extraordinary commitment to teaching. Michael Chernick, my first Talmud professor, is just one example. He is a unique human being: an Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. from Yeshiva University who teaches Talmud to Reform rabbinical students and a revered persona in our Movement’s camps, synagogues, and intellectual life. His mentorship extended even beyond ordination. When I was already serving as a rabbi at New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom, he called me up and said, “I’m going to come to your office two or three days a week this summer and teach you more Talmud. We’ll study a whole tractate together.” And we did.

Michael believed I had potential, and he fanned the flame of Talmud study within me. He is one of many HUC-JIR professors whose love of Jewish tradition, knowledge, and eagerness to mentor and challenge students is inspiring the next generation of Jewish leaders to grow in commitment to our people, faith, textual tradition, and history.

How has the faculty changed since then?

Our faculty, of which half are women today, reflects greater diversity than in the past, and, as such, encourages open and respectful debate among students who hold divergent positions on religious, political, and economic issues—enabling them to become more analytical thinkers, better able to understand the arc of Jewish tradition and the challenges facing Jewish continuity today.

How has HUC-JIR’s training of clergy changed since your ordination in 1991?

An electronics metaphor is apt here. Most of our home computers have a dual core processor. The combination of two “cores” allows integrated activity that far exceeds what one can do on a single processor. By working together, these two cores enable your computer to do all the regular work of a computer, but in a far more effective way.

The first core of our HUC-JIR education is traditional text study, which is the foundation for living an authentic Jewish life. This core allows us to graduate literate Jews who know how to access and teach the sacred texts, philosophy, history, and literature of our people. It has now been integrated with a second core of professional development, which includes pastoral counseling, social responsibility, and spirituality initiatives.

In both cores, our students benefit from experts whose applied research is transforming today’s Jewish community. For example, three HUC-JIR faculty members were lead researchers in the recent Pew “Portrait of American Jews” study, whose findings will transform Jewish social policy; and our professors are consistently writing books and papers and giving lectures that extend Jewish academic knowledge. Our students apply that innovative knowledge during their yearly internships at 400+ Reform congregations, including small synagogues that would otherwise lack professional leadership.

Is it HUC-JIR’s responsibility to prepare students to be entrepreneurial, to think outside the box?

Yes. Thinking outside the box is a constant theme in my classes. This morning, for example, while teaching a text from the Book of Ezra, I said, “Picture a Jewish community that has just spent 70 years in exile and is about to return to the Land of Israel. In effect, the Jewish people have to reconstitute their community.”

I then posed the questions, “What are the elements of reconstitution?” “What does this community in biblical antiquity need—the right kind of people, leaders, religious institutions?” “Does everyone have to speak the same language?”

From this historical basis, I believe we can begin to examine how one formulates effective community in North America in our day: “Who should be included?” “What institutions, such as the synagogue, can bring people together?”

Historical context also helps students think more broadly about why traditional institutions were fashioned as they were. Students can then ask, “Is this the best way to structure the synagogue today?” “Should we be improving our current structures or exploring ways to form new ones?” “Should we be inventing new directions to increase Jewish communal participation?” This kind of questioning roots students appropriately in prior Jewish experience, teaches them how to think creatively, and helps us make our institutions better—incrementally, and sometimes exponentially.

In effect, you are using historical texts to facilitate change management.

Yes. In order to effect positive change, we need to know the tradition well. In Judaism there has always been a tension between tradition and innovation. There are times when moving away from meaningful tradition leaves behind important pieces the community needs to preserve. Conversely, there are times when you have to say, “This tradition is no longer serving us and we need to think in new ways.” So, for example, our students and graduates are out there experimenting as “entrepreneurs” by establishing the first-ever pluralistic mikveh for Jews in New York City, and reaching out to 20- and 30-year-olds by holding Jewish congregational events in the cafes, bookstores, and community service venues many of them frequent.

In our day, what makes a rabbi or cantor successful?

Successful clergy are in a sacred relationship with their congregants. They listen to their members and are there for them when needed. At the same time, they stand up for what they believe. The clergy who have had the most profound influence upon me—such as those who marched in Selma to help lead the struggle for civil rights—spoke truth to power, asserting the Jewish value of human rights. I’m very proud of our alumni who have been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s right to pray at the Western Wall. Our graduates need to possess the strength of character and spirit to lead with such conviction and resolve.

You are a certified commercial pilot and a sailor. Do you see any parallels between steering a plane or ship and steering HUC-JIR?

Definitely. Federal Aviation Administration rules require that, before takeoff, a pilot assess everything that might affect the flight: conditions of the taxiways and runways, capabilities of the aircraft, terrain heights, wind velocity, weather patterns, the passengers’ health, even the pilot’s own skill and experience. Only then does the pilot chart the course.

This process is consonant with my approach to leadership. Since being elected president in August, I have intensively studied HUC-JIR and its relationship to North American Jewry, Israel, and world Jewry. Now, with the help of a talented staff, administration, and faculty, and the guidance of our dedicated Board, we will set the course in advancing our sacred mission.

What are some of your priorities?

My goal is to advance HUC-JIR as the intellectual center within our Movement. Through conferences and Internet venues, lay and professional leaders will be able to engage in thoughtful conversations about important Jewish issues affecting our community, the Jewish people, North American society, and the larger world. Through hybrid learning (face-to-face class time blended with online and out-of-class coursework) and high-quality video learning, we will bring the treasures of HUC-JIR’s faculty, libraries, and archives to congregants, exceptional high school and college students, and Jewish learners around the globe.

Financially, my priorities are to develop the relationships and support to sustain our faculty and grow scholarship funding, so that HUC-JIR graduate programs are affordable to all who seek careers as professional Jewish leaders.

I also plan to sustain and grow the many transformative partnerships instituted under my predecessor and mentor, Rabbi David Ellenson, including the service learning program sponsored by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, the rabbinical student mentoring program made possible by the Mandel Foundation, the engagement programs of the Schusterman Foundation, and the Jewish educational leadership programs funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. And I hope to strengthen the Gerecht Institute for Outreach at HUC-JIR, which I founded 15 years ago through the generosity of the Gerecht family, to deepen our rabbinical and cantorial students’ understanding of outreach and conversion.

In addition, I plan to share our School of Jewish Non-Profit Management’s expertise more broadly with the larger Jewish community, and leverage our regional campuses to serve as nuclei for deepening Reform Jewish learning in their parts of the country. And I intend to strengthen the continuing education of our 4,000 alumni who lead nearly 900 Reform synagogues, Hillels, schools, federations, Jewish agencies, and hospital and military chaplaincies worldwide.

What is your vision for partnership within the Reform Movement?

To realize a dream of deep cooperation to strengthen Reform Judaism. One important step forward is HUC-JIR and the URJ’s strategic partnership to bring the staff of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement to new offices on our New York campus. Having the URJ youth staff work with faculty and students in our building will create new synergies for joint programming, shared training and planning, and HUC-JIR recruitment.

Our Jerusalem campus, overlooking the Old City, has enormous potential to enrich North American Jewry as an experiential learning center, whether as the venue for young people who want to become b’nai mitzvah in Israel; as a destination for multi-generational congregational Israel trips; or as an educational, spiritual, and cultural resource for students spending gap or college years there. As we continue to build the Israeli Reform Movement, preparing new leaders for its burgeoning synagogues, our access to rabbinical alumni who serve the greater Israeli Reform Movement offers opportunities for learning, celebration, and connection to the vital Jewish narrative unfolding in Israel today.

Most of all, we must always be a Makom Torah —a place where our eternal tradition brings forth leaders ready to inspire learning and faith, implement innovation, and build communities of enduring meaning. If I can help assure this vision of a vibrant Jewish future, I will be fulfilled indeed.