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Remembering Rabbi Aaron Panken, in his own words from Selma on the 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday"

Remembering Rabbi Aaron Panken, in his own words from Selma on the 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday"

This post is adapted from a message Rabbi Fred Guttman sent to his congregation, Temple Emanuel of Greensboro, NC. 

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, died tragically in an accident on May 5, 2018. He was 53 years old. Our deepest condolences go out to his family.

In March 2015, Rabbi Panken gave the closing remarks at the Temple in Selma in honor of the 50th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," in front of 400 activists, including Jews and non-Jews. When I asked him to come to Selma to be a part of the program, along with Rev. William Barber, Dr. Susannah Heschel, Peter Yarrow, Rabbi Jonah Pesner and MLK’s longtime attorney Clarence Jones, Rabbi Panken immediately said “yes!” After his speech, Doug Mishkin led us in “Day is Done” and then we joined the tens of thousands of people who reenacted the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge.

Rabbi Panken's remarks: 

Today as we conclude commemoration on this sacred day, our hearts and our minds overflow with the images of the period, the places and the people. We remember the period’s frightening moments when unabashed hatred battered the good and robbed people of life and opportunity; when authorities who we looked to for leadership, morality and fairness used their immense influence for evil and not for good, and when the powerless suffered mightily at the hand of those who held them down. 

And yet, it was a time when undaunted courage and deep commitment rose up to conquer ignorance and prejudice; a moment when what appeared to be impossible, became possible though the concerted actions of a committed fearless community of seekers of justice who would not desist until hard won freedom and equality became reality.

Today as we walk, we walk the corridors of time and honor the memory of this period. We remember the places where heroism, large and small, expressed itself in the acts of so many; where Americans of all races, color, creed and origins came together and walked proudly, arm in arm, into history; the small towns, the large cities, the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, the lunch counters, the bus seats, the prison in St Augustine, the churches and synagogues in Mississippi and throughout the south, the thousands of places where a vision of a better world welled up and grew; places where long traditions of hatred were shaken off, places where people knew that what was right must eventually come to exist, places where our forbearers moved the world from injustice to justice through their self-sacrifice and acts which defied terrible danger.

Today as we walk, we walk the streets of these communities and we honor the memory of what happened on these places. And perhaps most of all, we as members of the Jewish community, united with all humanity, remember the people who risked their lives - l'taken et haolam - to better the world. 

We are just a few weeks from Pesach, our season of liberation, and we celebrate all those people who served as liberators, brave rabbis imprisoned and attacked for a cause greater than themselves, decent and committed Jewish leaders who came to register voters, to support protestors and to march along side of those who faced oppression, those who risked their lives and those who gave their lives, our people who understand slavery and oppression, linked inexorably with the community that was experiencing its terrible impact. Today as we walk, we walk in the footsteps of these great individuals and we honor the memory of their actions.…

Martin Luther King pointed out this essential truth about the Jewish community that he learned from being with us. He said about the Jewish community specifically:

‘Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy. Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions. When we go into action and confront our adversaries, we must be armed with knowledge as they. Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.’

Let us on this day of commemoration, commit ourselves anew to learning and leading for justice, to raising up a new generation of educated leaders who will strengthen knowledge and who will continue to lead our Jewish community once again into the forefront of changing this world for the better.

Today as we walk, we walk with hope, not because our work is done, but because we know that when we commit ourselves, we too can have the strength to complete it.

After Rabbi Panken’s remarks, Doug Mishkin led the four hundred people in the Selma Temple in the song, “Day is Done.”

I found myself tearing up at that moment. The words of this song (see below) - which at that moment meant one thing – now mean something else in light of this terrible loss. I am considering reading Rabbi Panken’s words prior to the Kaddish next weekend and urge others to consider doing so as well.

Tell me why you're crying, my son
I know you're frightened, like everyone
Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?
Will it help if I stay very near?
I am here

And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done
Day is done, day is done, day is done, day is done

Do you ask why I'm sighing, my son?
You shall inherit what all of us have done
In a world filled with sorrow and woe
If you ask me why this is so, I really don't know.

And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done
Day is done, day is done, day is done, day is done

Tell me why you're smiling my son
Is there a secret you can tell everyone?
Do you know more than men that are wise?
Can you see what we all must disguise
Through your loving eyes?

And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done

Day is done, day is done, day is done, day is done
The day is done, day is done, day is done, all of you singing

And if you take my hand my son
All will be well my son oh
If you take my hand my son
All will be well

(Songwriter: Peter Yarrow)

Aaron will be sorely missed. Zacher Tzaddik Levracha. May the memory of this Tzaddik, this righteous man, be a blessing.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and served in an Israel combat unit in the 1980s.

Rabbi Fred Guttman

Published: 5/07/2018