Reform leader describes his fervor for teaching, learning and the right balance

Reform leader describes his fervor for teaching, learning and the right balance

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken is the new president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken is the new president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The future belongs to the young, they say, and the man tasked with guiding tomorrow’s Reform leaders kept that truism in mind during his recent visit to Pittsburgh.

“Our job is not to define the right answer, but to equip [students] to make a good decision about the right answer,” said Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, the new president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who stopped in the city Sept. 6-7, his first visit here since assuming office.

Sitting down in between meetings with local Reform rabbis and leaders, Panken spoke about his vision for the movement and his institution, which for 140 years has been educating students in rabbinic and cantorial study, Jewish studies and nonprofit management. It maintains campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem.

Speaking to the challenges as the head of such a venerated institution, Panken has one eye on the religious and one on the secular aspects of the job.

“There are challenges running an institution, things like making sure you are financially balanced and sustainable and growing,” he explained. “Finding students for the next generation of Jewish leadership is always an interesting challenge. It continues to be a challenge to help Jews all over the country be connected and be involved.”

Turning to the social justice movements that have underpinned much of Reform Judaism’s focus in the last half century, he pointed out that “Reform Judaism was right there with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. We’ve always been after a better and more just American society, and I think it’s critical that we continue to be strong about that.”

During the course of his conversation, he highlighted several different ways, both here in the States and abroad, rabbinic students are making good decisions and working toward the right balance. Whether it’s how to welcome people of different faiths into a temple, speak with a potential convert or assist soldiers returning from the battlefield, Panken said he is proud of the work done by the college’s students.

Its graduates are active in approximately 400 communities in the United States, Panken emphasized, and 85 Reform rabbis serve congregations in Israel. Panken said these rabbis and the rabbinic students learning on campus in Jerusalem are important symbols of the egalitarianism the Reform movement represents.

“Our goal is to have a strong Israel, a safe Israel, but also an Israel that has the kind of religious freedom and approach to all different forms of Judaism that we believe in,” he said. “I’m really proud to say that our Israeli rabbinical programs are making a huge impact on Israeli society.”

Of special note to Pittsburgh is a new relationship between the University of Pittsburgh Press and the Hebrew Union College Press: Pitt is now distributing all of the publications for the HUC publishing arm, and Panken said the institution hopes to have a celebratory event to mark the partnership sometime this year.

Looking to the future, Panken said the college has a five-point roadmap for the next three years that includes continuing to build on the college’s reputation of high intellectual content and leadership; recruiting the best and brightest for all its programs; continuing to be in a stable position through sustainability and growth; revising all of the curriculum to ensure it meshes with the current contemporary world; and continuing to build the Diaspora-Israel relationship.

“I think there is nothing more important to me than teaching or learning,” said Panken, who in addition to a background in Talmudic and rabbinic studies, teaching and administration, studied electrical engineering and holds a pilot’s license. “It forms informed individuals and communities that live up to the ideals and values of your learning.

“As an educational institution, it’s our job to provide [students] with a Jewish foundation of the sociology of different opinions that one would make, to provide them with examples of individuals that thought an issue through with varying perspectives,” he continued. “The hope is that a great student will look at all of this just like they have since the time of the Talmud and take in all these viewpoints and make a thoughtful, intelligent decision for where they find themselves.”

Dave Rullo is a local freelance writer.