January 5, 2003, will go down in Temple Shaari Emeth’s history as the day that the Temple took a bold step forward into the future. At the Special Congregation Meeting that snowy night, the congregation overwhelmingly approved Rabbi Melinda F. Panken to become our Senior Rabbi. This represented a great step forward for both our Temple and the Reform Movement as a whole. Rabbi Panken continues Shaari Emeth's vision of the Temple as a warm and caring place that is welcoming to all who seek a home in the Jewish community. And Shaari Emeth remains in the forefront of the Reform Movement as a large congregation with a female Senior Rabbi.
“I grew up at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan,” Rabbi Panken said. “Rabbi Priesand’s first pulpit was as our assistant rabbi. So, growing up, she was my childhood rabbi. I am actually from the first generation of Jews who grew up seeing that rabbis could be either men or women.” [Rabbi Priesand was the first woman ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972.]
From 1999 to 2003, Rabbi Panken was the primary rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, New Jersey. She has also served congregations in such diverse places as New York City and Laramie, Wyoming. For three years Rabbi Panken served as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a 1,400-family congregation on the Upper East Side--one of the largest and most prestigious congregations affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Panken studied at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and received her Rabbinic ordination in 1996. She graduated from Brandeis University, Cum Laude, with a major in Sociology and a minor in Near East and Judaic Studies. She has received numerous academic awards for excellence in rabbinic scholarship and Hebrew.
Rabbi Panken brings passion for Jewish education from pre-school to adults, for Torah and Talmud study, for youth groups and summer camp, and for building a whole and inclusive community. Rabbi Panken is a member of the Freehold Interfaith Clergy Association and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and is chair of the CentraState Hospital BioEthics Committee. She and her husband have two children. He once asked her, "What do you call the husband of a rabbi?" She said, "I'd call him lucky!" We are indeed lucky and blessed that Rabbi Panken is our Senior Rabbi.