Rabbi Melinda F. Panken
Rabbi Melinda Faith Panken grew up on the Upper West Side in New York City. Her introduction to synagogue life began at a very young age when her parents enrolled her in the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Nursery School. Stephen Wise was the synagogue that hired the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, and so Rabbi Panken was a member of the first generation of young women to grow up with a female rabbi on the bima. So much of Rabbi Panken’s love of Judaism came from her roots at Stephen Wise. She was confirmed and graduated from the Hebrew School there, she was elected Senior Youth Group Secretary and President, serving on the Temple Board at the age of 16. She went on to become Secretary and President of CRaFTY, the City Region a Federation of Temple Youth. By the time she was a junior in high school she was already convinced the Rabbinate was her calling.
Rabbi Panken graduated from Bronx High School of Science, where she earned an award in Bio Ethics, and went on to graduate from Brandeis University Cum Laude. At Brandeis she was active in the Student Coalition for Soviet Jews, a group that organized lobbying in Washington to have the U.S. Government pressure the U.S.S.R. to release Soviet Jews. At Brandeis she taught Religious School at Temple Emanuel in Andover, MA, and she began working for Greene Family Camp for Living Judaism in Bruceville, Texas, where she served as a Unit Educator, Unit Head and eventually Education Director. She would later take her camping experience to Malibu, California where she became the Resident Director of Gindling Hilltop Camp for a summer.
Rabbi Panken graduated from Brandeis and returned to New York City where she taught Hebrew School and became a Youth Group Advisor at her home congregation, Stephen Wise. She was accepted to Rabbinical School at HUC-JIR where she would spend her first year living and studying in Israel, after which she returned to study at the New York campus for the next four years. During her rabbinical studies Rabbi Panken was a Rabbinic Intern at Central Synagogue and Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, she served a High Holy Days Pulpit in Laramie, Wyoming, she studied at Drisha (an Orthodox Women’s Yeshiva) and she was chosen as a Wexner Summer Intern for a Chaplaincy Internship at New York Hospital Cornell-Weill. Rabbi Panken received a Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR, wrote her thesis on “Historic Halakhic Models and Their Meaning for the Present” and was awarded the David G. Sacks Scholarship Prize for General Excellence, The Rabbi Jill Kreitman Prize in Homiletics, The Rabbi Herbert Hendel Memorial Prize for General Excellence and The Marvin Gimprich Award in Hebrew. In 1996 she received her Smicha and was ordained as a Rabbi.
Right out of school Rabbi Panken became the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City where much of her work focused on youth and young adult programming and adult education. She subsequently moved to Edison, New Jersey where she became the primary full time Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, New Jersey and in 2003 she became the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, New Jersey where she is currently serving in her eleventh year.
The fostering of strong ties to the Union for Reform Judaism has always been a key part of Rabbi Panken’s focus, through her work and commitment to Jewish camping. She served as Rabbinical Advisor to NFTY-NYC and became a member of the NFTY-GER Youth Committee when she moved to Edison. She has served on many committees for the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) and she was the Co-Chair of the ARZA Rabbinic Council for several years working to promote Reform Judaism in Israel and Reform Zionism in America. Additionally, she served as Regional Representative for the WRN (Women’s Rabbinic Network).
Wherever Rabbi Panken has served she has worked to promote interfaith understanding by becoming an active member of the local Interfaith Clergy Association. In Edison she was the Vice President of the Metuchen Edison Clergy Association and several years ago she became the President of the Freehold Clergy Association. She created the Three Faiths Dialogue series with the Freehold Clergy Association, was instrumental in helping the Clergy Association create a Winter Emergency Shelter Program for the homeless in the Freehold area and has created interfaith programs for teens through Project Understanding and the Mosaic Program. Rabbi Panken also currently serves as the Chair of the Bioethics Committee at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold. She often works in partnership with the Monmouth County Jewish Federation and some of the local Hadassah Chapters. She has published articles in “Where We Stand: Jewish Consciousness on Campus,” and in “The Women’s Haftarah Commentary.”
In the area of pastoral care, Rabbi Panken has served as a beacon of light and hope to so many individuals and families over the years. Her empathetic and caring demeanor and personal connection to all whom she serves inspires, motivates and consoles. In the circle of life cycle events, from simcha to sorrow, Rabbi Panken addresses the needs of every person and family with individualized dignity, respect and joy, and she is ever grateful for her privilege to do so in the service of the Holy One of Blessing.
Rabbi Panken finds her work as a rabbi extremely fulfilling – teaching, working with all age groups, praying, singing, counseling and dreaming. She loves to teach and study Torah and hopes that she inspires Jews to live meaningful Jewish lives. She is blessed to work with the Shaari Emeth community and looks forward to working continually to create a vibrant, compassionate, responsive Jewish community that makes a difference in people’s lives in Monmouth County.
Rabbi Panken is happily married to Glenn S. Cohen and they are blessed to have two adorable children.