North Shore Temple Emanuel
a Progressive Jewish Congregation
North Shore Temple Emanuel and our clergy join with Reform/Progressive leaders the world over, in mourning the recent tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D, z”l.
Rabbi Panken was President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), where the majority of our movement’s clergy learn, train, and receive ordination. As President of the seminary, he was meant to preside over the ordination of the New York class of rabbis and cantors, which took place just a day after he died in a plane crash. He is survived by his wife and two children, his parents, and his sister. He is remembered lovingly by hundreds of students and colleagues. The funeral took place on Tuesday 8 May in New York.
About Rabbi Panken, Rabbi Nicole writes: “He was a beloved teacher with a brilliant vision for the future of our seminary, whose presidency he assumed only recently, in 2014. His students adored him. The movement is in shock and mourning. Zichrono livrachah.”
In tribute to his life, leadership, and teaching, we share these windows into who he was and all he achieved:
May his memory be for a blessing, and may his family and his students be comforted, as they grieve alongside the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Every Shabbat, every Friday night in our worship service, we sing a 16th century prayer about emissaries sent to us from heaven. While some faith traditions call these “angels,” our tradition sees them a little differently. We don’t understand them to be halo’ed creatures with wings—perfectly good, and partially divine. In our tradition, they’re just a sort of messenger, who come to do a task that needs doing here in the human realm, where there is pain and brokenness and limitations that we cannot always overcome on our own. These emissaries are known in our texts and liturgy as malachei hashareit—the ministering angels—because they come to facilitate something happening on earth—to ease the path for a person to succeed, or to progress a process that’s pregnant with possibility but just needs a little push or support. These malachei hashareit pave our way toward a life of blessing, and every time we sing about them on Friday nights, I think of Frank.
There are many, many people here today paying honour to Frank, from his closest family to his business colleagues, who’ve shut down the office at Abacus to be here—which I’m told he’d be furious about. From his Temple family, to those he touched in the wider Jewish community through his years of service with JCA, with Masada, with the Emanuel School, Montefiore home, and more. So many of us here today are where we are in life because of Frank’s guidance and mentorship; because he believed in us and had pride in us; because he paved the way for us, saw our potential, found or created opportunities for us; because he was generous with us and always had time for us when we called. If Frank saw a way that he could help, he would, earning the loyalty of his colleagues and friends, the adoration of his family, the esteem of his community, and his place among the malachei hashareit, the ministering angels.
If he heard all this, of course, he wouldn’t be too happy with us. Frank was exceedingly humble, and didn’t relish being the centre of attention. This, even though he enjoyed countless achievements, starting with his entrepreneurial efforts as a child, buying and reselling books that he knew would “be worth something someday,” to help support the family after losing his father, when he was only 14 and Geoff was 11. He and Geoff enjoyed a close relationship as children, both celebrating bar mitzvah here at NSTE, where their parents were founding members. (While it’s not customary for the mourners to speak at the funeral in our tradition, Geoff will be sharing more memories and reflections on their youth tonight at the minyan.)
Frank was always an excellent student who, at one stage, thought of pursuing an academic career and completed his Ph.D in accounting and finance in a miraculous 3 years. He was highly driven, and when he set his mind to something there was just no stopping him. He became a partner at Touche Ross, later held senior management roles in the insurance and financial advisory industries, and in 1996 became founding member of Abacus and its managing director a decade later. He planned to retire on the 1st of July this year, his 65th birthday, but he loved his work and had a tremendous work ethic. He was so proud when his son Jonathan decided to go into the same field, his interest no doubt nurtured along by those many weekends Frank would drag him and Rachel, not to sporting events like all the other kids in school, but to go and look at properties. They also stopped at garage sales and bookshops, as no game was more fun to Frank than getting “a deal.”
Frank wasn’t one for rest and relaxation. Television was a waste of time, and he hated the beach, with its cold water, sand, and schlepping – “it’s all too hard,” he’d say. But he and Karen did enjoy travel, and theatre, Friday night dinners, and eating out on a Saturday night, during their wonderful marriage of 43 years, which started at the North Shore Synagogue in January 1975. Karen has been a hero of the past 10 months especially, and we pray that the birth of your fifth grandchild, born just a week before Frank died, will bring you hope and comfort in the difficult days and weeks to come. Frank adored his grandchildren, and they adored him back. Even the day before he died, Frank’s face lit up when his only granddaughter smiled at him in the hospital room. They are his legacy, and like his own children and his nieces, his pride and joy.
They will no doubt carry on Frank’s love of tradition, for Frank was so passionate about Jewish continuity, community, and education. They will also carry on his name and the memory of Reva and John, his parents, who also died too soon. Throughout his life, Frank’s parents never left his mind, and he was so troubled that he couldn’t get to shul last week for his father’s yahrzeit. So on Saturday, I brought him a yahrzeit candle with a little battery-operated, switch-on, tea light on top that he could use in the hospital without breaking any rules. I brought him a second tea light that day too, in the hopes that if he found himself still in hospital come this Friday night, he could light both lights and feel a connection to his tradition, his community, and his Temple family. I thought for sure he would be somewhere he could light them—not that tonight we would be lighting a candle for him.
They say that the malachim—these divine emissaries—don’t actually die; they merely return to their Maker after their task on earth is complete. There was surely more work to do here in our aching world, and Frank, we will never understand why you had to depart it so soon. We know your destiny was not as you’d envisioned it, but you bore your reality with positivity, pragmatism, and determination, never letting your condition or its harsh treatments stand in the way of your work or your many communal engagements and commitments. How we wish you could have stayed here with us longer, to see the many fruits of your generosity flourish.
Instead, we simply pray that your passing has spared you a degree of pain and anguish and fear. We pray, as we will every Friday night when we sing Shalom Aleichem to our malachei hashareit, that as you entered our lives in peace, and blessed us with peace, that likewise you’ll go forth from this world in peace, and look after us as best you can from the heavens that sent you. Tzeit’cha l’shalom, malach hashareit. May you take your leave in peace.