Rabbi Aaron Panken, the newly announced president-elect of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said just days after being named that he hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the Reform movement’s academic home by marrying technology, creativity and a renewed commitment to Reform values, including at the HUC-JIR Los Angeles campus.
“I think L.A. is a really fertile place for the development of progressive Jewish life,” Panken said during a phone interview on Aug. 1, a day after his appointment was announced by the HUC-JIR board of governors. Panken takes on his new role on Jan. 1, succeeding Rabbi David Ellenson, a former dean at the L.A. campus who has been president since 2001 and will become chancellor.
As president of HUC-JIR, Panken will serve in the top leadership position — chief executive officer — of the international university and Reform seminary’s four campuses, which are located in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem and New York.
Panken’s experience with HUC-JIR dates back to the mid-1990s. At HUC-JIR, he has served as vice president for strategic initiatives, dean of the New York campus and dean of students. He joined the Reform seminary’s faculty in 1995, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of rabbinic and Second Temple literature.
But it is his tech-savvy background that, in many ways, is expected to inform the way he leads. Unlike most rabbis, who tend to gravitate toward the humanities and social sciences as undergraduates, Panken’s first degree was in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. (He is also a licensed commercial pilot.)
He said such interests have led him to look at increasing the role technology plays in shaping HUC-JIR’s programming.
“The religious scene is changing in North America, and we will have to try some new interesting initiatives to attract and retain people and develop an exciting and innovative Jewish community,” he said.
Panken will become the 12th president in the seminary’s 138-year history, and he praised his predecessor’s achievements in bringing in top-tier faculty, highly motivated students and turning HUC-JIR into what he called a “first-rate Jewish intellectual center.”
It is a legacy that he would like to continue, he said.
But new challenges lie ahead, including finding ways to reach and engage a generation of young Jews “reluctant to form connections with centralized institutions and organizations,” Panken said.
“The question is, how can synagogues, schools and seminaries think carefully about how to reach out to individuals who have real religious needs but don’t always feel compelled to be connected,” Panken said.
As examples of new methods and approaches he pointed to a synagogue in a large metropolitan area that, after hiring a recent HUC-JIR graduate, told the new rabbi to spend less time in the synagogue and more time in cafes, bookstores and coffee shops, meeting Jews where they actually spend their time. Another freshly minted HUC-JIR graduate is establishing a liberal Jewish mikveh.
“It’s this kind of innovation and creativity that keeps Judaism exciting and alive and attractive to a lot of people,” he said.
Panken, 49, earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies from New York University and serves on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation, the editorial board of Reform Judaism magazine, the Birthright education committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis ethics committee. His journey with the Reform movement began at a New York Reform synagogue’s nursery school when he was 3 years old, and he said he has never looked back.
“That kind of meaningful relationship that you can form within a religious community has really shaped my life,” he said. “And if I can in any way help my students and help the rest of the Jewish community benefit and grow that kind of wonderful religious community, then that’s exactly what I want to be doing with my life.”
One challenge Panken won’t have is making sure the institution is financially solvent. In 2008, the nationwide recession hit the school hard, even threatening for a brief time the closure of the Hebrew Union’s L.A. campus, but thanks in part to the efforts of Ellenson and Josh Holo, dean of the L.A. campus, HUC-JIR is now financially stable, Panken said.
Panken praised all that Ellenson has brought to the table — including inspiring the movement to value Torah study and stressing the importance of studying theology, philosophy and ethics in engaging the modern Jewish world, he said — while acknowledging ways that they are different from each other.
“There are certain ways that I think in terms of technology, in terms of outreach that are maybe a little bit different,” he said.
And, with the seminary’s books in order, Panken can focus his energy upon what really matters to him.
“I think we can focus on mission and vision and the kind of important things we care about,” he said, “as opposed to worrying about closure and things like that.”