Few things have shaken the Rodeph Sholom family as much as the passing of Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l. On a Wednesday, he presented Cantor Rebecca Garfein with the degree of Doctor of Music ad causam, but on the following Sunday, he was gone—and our newest rabbi, Juliana Karol, was ordained without him. Cantor Garfein has written a beautiful reflection on this loss, the surreal nature of it, and what a great force for good Rabbi Panken was. Originally published in the HUC alumni bulletin, we share her reflections below.
By Cantor Rebecca Garfein
Anyone who knew and loved Rabbi Aaron Panken will never forget where they were when they got “the call.” I was minutes from the curtain rising for my son, Max’s Saturday night performance of Oliver! at Rodeph Sholom, where Aaron had been the very first beloved Assistant Rabbi of Rabbi Robert Levine, our wonderful Senior Rabbi.
When I got “the call,” I pleaded with Rabbi Greg Weitzman, our Assistant Rabbi, who shared the news. “Please tell me you’re kidding. Please tell me this is not true.” I kept saying this over and over until so distraught, I had to leave the Shafler Forum, where the musical was about to be performed.
You see, I am no stranger to grief. Not that this makes me an expert, but my mind could not, would not accept, that somehow, Aaron was gone.
The year was 1990. I had just returned from my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem when I met Aaron at our fall kallah for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at Eisner Camp. Aaron was a Senior. I was beginning my second year of cantorial school. He was simply the most fun person to be around. I remember all of us piling into a van to go bowling in town in the Berkshires. To be honest, it was the only thing I remember about kallah.
Fast forward to May 3, 2018. 18 years as the Senior Cantor of Congregation Rodeph Sholom and 25 years in the cantorate. It was time to receive my honorary doctorate in music. How was this even possible? Like Rip Van Winkle, I felt like one day I went to sleep and the next day, it was 25 years later!
On that day, Aaron met with those of us about to receive our degrees at 11:00 am at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. I was a tad late, having hosted The Cantors in Concert: Voices of a Generation the night before at Rodeph Sholom with my classmates and New York City colleagues. I soon figured out from the conversation, that we were to share something about our lives over the last 25 years. I waited awhile, listening to what the others had to say, uncertain I could share what I felt in my heart. Back to my grief journey, but it is not what you think.
On November 7, 2014, I lost my best friend and classmate, Cantor Jenny Izenstark, to complications with auto-immune disease. This past September 11, 2017, I lost my beloved husband, Marvin “Mike” Gellman after he battled acute myeloid leukemia for four years. On the day I was to receive my honorary doctorate, Mike and Jenny were definitely supposed to be there by my side. Under Aaron’s guidance, I spoke about how we all expected our lives to look a certain way 25 years later. I fully expected Jenny to receive her honorary doctorate with me and Mike to be by my side cheering us on. While these losses are a lot to bear, I explained that while Mike and Jenny were not physically with us, that they were sitting on my shoulders guiding me, as they each had done since leaving the physical world.
At the conclusion of the session with Aaron, we gathered together, and Aaron blessed us all. I cried openly, remembering the moment of ordination on that very bima at Emanu-El 25 years ago, with my beloved Jenny by my side and with my entire future full of ambition, excitement, and hope.
After the blessing, Aaron came over to me telling me how he had not seen me since Mike’s passing in September and how truly sorry he was for my loss. He hugged me and later that afternoon, he did once again after handing me my honorary doctorate certificate.
After the doctorate ceremony concluded, I shared a very “Aaron moment” with my classmate, Cantor Ida Rae Cahana. Aaron proclaimed to the two of us, “My two favorite Cantors!” I looked at him and said, “I bet you say that to all the cantors!” We all laughed loudly together. That was the last time I saw dear Aaron.
My heart is with Lisa and their beautiful children, Melinda and her family, and Aaron’s parents and extended family. He was an extraordinarily special and brilliant man and I can only imagine their grief. As Rabbi Levine has said many times since Aaron’s tragic passing, Aaron died doing something he absolutely adored and that gave him great joy.
I know Aaron’s beautiful soul is now soaring with the magnificent birds he admired when he would fly his planes and with all of the angels that left this world much, much too soon. Rest in Paradise, dear friend.