He has studied biomedical engineering and piloted a glider over the Rockies, but the experience that has guided Rabbi Aaron Panken's career the most, he says, was running Jewish youth groups. Today, he is the 12th President in the 139-year history of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
HUC-JIR's campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York teach Reform Movement's rabbis and other professionals, and offer graduate programs for scholars of all faiths. HUC-JIR's 4,000 active alumni serve the Reform Movement's 1.5 million members and nearly 900 congregations, representing the largest Jewish denomination in North America.
"I believe very strongly in Reform Judaism," he says. "It is highly suited for the North American context, as it stresses egalitarianism and equality, and has been a leader in civil rights. Its values and America's are aligned."
In college, Panken-a New York native-first studied electrical and biomedical engineering in classrooms and labs, graduating from Johns Hopkins University's Electrical Engineering program. While there, Panken also found he enjoyed working with Jewish teens and young adults.
While Panken's scientific work was forward-thinking, his Jewish scholarly interests are steeped in the past-rabbinic and Second Temple Literature, and the history of legal concepts, Jewish narrative, and holiday observances. "There are similarities between the Talmud and a laboratory as far as logic playing very strongly, and having to prove your assertions," Panken allows. "However, the rules for acceptable evidence are different."
Panken earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. But most of his Jewish professional life has revolved around HUC-JIR, where he studied and was ordained. After serving as a congregational rabbi in New York, he returned to HUC-JIR to teach, then serve as dean and vice president, and now as president.
In this position, Panken is charged with what he calls "thought leadership," including overseeing the curriculum. He is in charge of the faculty, including hiring. And he is tasked with fundraising. "As an engineer," he laughs, "I am not afraid of numbers."
Panken is also concerned with extending HUC-JIR beyond its walls, through its professors teaching at other campuses, and even- through the Internet- in non-campus settings. Some classes are even MOOCs, or "Massively Open Online Courses" with hundreds of students. Given his background, it is not surprising that Panken sees technology as a "tool with positive uses" for education.
Panken extends his own energies outside of HUC-JIR as well, serving on the faculty for the Wexner Foundation, of which he is an alumnus, and as visiting faculty at universities in Australia and China. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Reform Judaism magazine and holds other leadership roles within the Reform Movement and greater Jewish community.
Panken's other passion is flying. He has been a commercially licensed pilot for 20 years, flying both single-engine planes and gliders, in which he has flown for hundreds of miles at a time with no engine. "Gliding a spiritual experience," he says, "You are focused on the natural beauty and splendor of God's world. Of course, you still have to remain aware of potential landing fields."