Plane crash kills president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, 53, was flying plane

CINCINNATI – The president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was killed when the  small plane he was piloting crashed in Middletown, New York, on Saturday, according to media reports.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, 53, a licensed pilot, was killed when the two-seater Aeronca 7AC aircraft crashed just after takeoff from Randall Airport, about 70 miles northwest of Manhattan.

Panken was on a routine flight check with an instructor, according to a HUC-JIR spokesperson, the New York Times reported. The instructor was injured and taken to a hospital.

"He flew as a hobby," Panken's wife said, according to the Times.

The plane crashed in a wooded area, according to WCBS-TV in New York.

(WCBS-TV photo)

WABC-TV in New York identified Panken as a resident of Manalapan, New Jersey.

It is unclear what caused the plane to crash, according to WABC. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating, it said.

Panken's death was confirmed in a release from HUC-JIR.

In Cincinnati, Panken’s funeral will be livestreamed at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Scheuer Chapel, on the Clifton Avenue campus. At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Shiva services will be held in the Scheuer Chapel, open to the entire Cincinnati community.

"We are all heartbroken and deeply sad -- together, students, faculty, staff, our HUC community," Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D. said in a letter Monday. Cohen is dean and associate professor at the Cincinnati campus.

"Our heartfelt condolences and prayers are with the Panken family, our HUC-JIR community, and all who were touched by our rabbi, teacher, leader and friend," Cohen wrote.

Panken served as the 12th president in HUC-JIR’s 143-year history, according to the release. Panken was elected on July 31, 2013 and installed on June 8, 2014.

HUC-JIR, a institution of higher learning and seminary for Reform Judaism, has campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York and provides academic and professional training for the Reform Movement’s rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, according to the release.

The Reform Movement has 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations, representing the largest Jewish denomination in North America, it said. About 35 percent of U.S. Jews are Reform Jews and 10 percent are Orthodox Jews, according to a Pew Research Center study. Orthodox Jews represent a large majority in Israel, according to the Times.

Panken was a distinguished rabbi, scholar, teacher and leader of the Reform Movement for nearly three decades, according to the release. As HUC-JIR president, Panken had a transformative vision and embedded technology in support of student learning and administration, strengthened recruitment to yield the largest incoming classes in a decade, launched new Jewish education, nonprofit management, and entrepreneurship programs and academic partnerships, and invigorated the ties linking HUC-JIR’s four campuses and their larger communities.

Panken had been ordained by HUC-JIR in New York in 1991 and joined the HUC-JIR faculty in 1995.

Panken 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, according to HUC-JIR. 

SEE the full release.

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