Celebrating Jonathan Woocher z”l

Last month we invited readers to share memories of and learning from the visionary Jewish educator Jonathan Woocher, of blessed memory, who died July 7, 2017.

In celebration of his life, students, friends, and colleagues shared thoughts and lessons from Jon that have left a lasting impression. We thank them for keeping his legacy alive. His memory is surely an enduring blessing.

 

Jon was one of my favorite colleagues.
I mourn his untimely death, and I grieve his passing.
Jon taught me much – consistently, convincingly, and graciously.
His contributions to the Jewish community over decades include, in my opinion, some definitive intellectual achievements. Superordinate among them, perhaps, is his Sacred Survival. It is unlikely one can fully appreciate the complexity and nuance of Jewish communal organization in the United States without reading Jon’s brilliant analysis of Jewish civil religion’s influence on our polity. Jon’s voice was distinctive: rich in Jewish texture, penetrating in its reason, erudite, and always respectful – even in instances when Jon brought the full force of fervent personal passions to bear on the matter at-hand.
This is one of those truly quality persons whose demise deeply distresses me. I cannot reconcile our loss of Jon with there being even a modicum of fairness in the world. I am comforted, if at all, by private conversations Jon and I enjoyed the past several years and his redoubtable courage in the face of death’s imminence.
Jon’s memory will most certainly be for a blessing, albeit for me (and I assume many others) haunting in the absence of his uplifting presence.
– Chip Edelsberg

Jon was the first professional at the national level that I worked with and that, perhaps, is the greatest gift of all.  He set the bar for me and now, because of Jon, these are the things I look for when I am asked to serve on a national board:
– a culture of kindness
– allowance of failure
– analysis of both success and failure
– a requirement to hear from everyone
– lightheartedness with a very serious undertone
– belief that change can be made
– diversity of practice, belief and support
– big donors are given the same respect as those with less income to share
Thirty years ago this weekend, Jon worked with me to host the first-ever Israel-North America Jewish Educators Think Tank. We hosted 26 senior educators at my conference center in Texas, many of whom continue to lead the field today. We asked questions of them such as “what I believe,” “what do we want from Jewish education today,” “how do my personal philosophies impact my educational leadership.”
For two days we talked not about our jobs but about ourselves. We held this event because I asked Jon when do educators just get to talk to each other with no prescribed outcome. He replied “never, let’s do it.”
– Jaynie Schultz

I wrote a whole book [100 Jewish Things to Do Before You Die] based on Dr. Woocher’s pointed observation that Jews today don’t need to know “how to stay Jewish, but how to be Jewish.” He was so in tune with our times, so brilliantly able to pinpoint the most important issues. In Jewish Megatrends, he wrote: “We live now in a different time, a time of hybrid identities and multiple communities. For most younger American Jews, the issue is not whether or not to be Jewish – they are Jewish, and their Jewishness is in no sense a burden or a barrier. But with many identities intermingling in their self-definition and with many communities available within which to pursue the things they value in life, the significance of their Jewishness is very much up for grabs. The new question that Jewish education must answer is not about group preservation, but about personal meaning.” He raised the question Jewish educators strive to answer – a task made much more difficult without his wisdom: “Can Judaism, Jewish community, Israel, the Jewish people, Jewish culture, and Jewish learning be a powerful resource for [young Jews] as they seek to construct meaningful, fulfilling, purposeful, and responsible lives?”
– Barbara Sheklin Davis

I think often about Jonathan Woocher’s classic text Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews. His insights are deeply important to me personally and professionally as a Jewish day school educator at Gann Academy and lay leader with AJC. My Jewish journey, academic pursuits, and Jewish civic participation have focused squarely on notions of American Jewish pluralism and I appreciate his identification of core tenets of organized Jewish life and his leadership to bring together American Jews from a variety of perspectives to enhance the field of Jewish education. Through this book and his work on behalf of Jewish education, I am grateful for his insights and strong advocacy for the “Renaissance and Renewal” pillar of American Jewish life which has greatly impacted my Boston Jewish community and the American Jewish community as a whole. Finally, I recall his insight from his famous 2010 piece that Jewish education needs to evolve “to our world in which learners and families expect to be active choosers and even co-creators of their learning experience.” What a perfect charge for all of us who learned from him to carry forth the torch of his wisdom!
– Jonathan J. Golden

In 30 years of working closely with Jonathan Woocher on a series of projects in Jewish education, I learned much from his wisdom. But three lessons stand out as the Woocher legacy.
1. Jewish education must be a communal priority.
Jon believed Jewish education was too vital to the creative survival of American Jewry to be left to Jewish educators alone. Every communal leader had to see that he or she had a personal stake in its success. And that meant constant dialogue among educators, communal leaders and donors.
2. There is no silver bullet in Jewish education/engagement.
When so often voices would arise that day schools or summer camps or Birthright Israel is the best solution for guaranteeing Jewish continuity, Jon would remind us that we are a diverse community with many different needs and no single bullet can provide the single best response. We need multiple responses.
3. The educational picture is always changing.
In his later years Jon came increasingly convinced that how people learn is undergoing a fundamental change and that Jewish educators needed to understand these changes. Jon was a relentless advocate for creativity and re-invention in promoting Jewish learning and growth.
Jon Woocher will be sorely missed by those of us inspired by his wisdom and personal example.
– Joseph Reimer

I will never forget May 1, 1990, the day I met Jon Woocher and began our 27-year friendship. I was immediately impressed by his intelligence, kindness, good humor, and dedication to the Jewish people. He hired me and we launched The Covenant Foundation in the fall. During the 15 years we worked together we took tremendous pride in Covenant’s success. His good counsel, provided so gently and discreetly, saved me from many a blunder. His unwavering support for the often out-of-the-box projects Covenant supported made many exciting projects happen. As  supervisor, colleague and dear friend, he truly possessed every virtue. I will always miss him.
– Judith Ginsberg

Circa 1999, I attended the annual Hillel International Leadership Conference at Camp Moshava. (I had the privilege of working for Hillel’s Schusterman International Center from 2002-2006). Jonathan spoke to a packed house about the “big Jewish Family” as I recall. He suggested to those in attendance that they give a listen to the NY/Tri State area’s Jewish Morning Radio Program on WFMU 91.9 FM- a show called JM in the AM. (now in its 35th year, online only). I recall him saying “Why spend every morning with Imus or Howard Stern when once in a while you can spend it with 20,000 other Jews listening to OUR music”. I was profoundly impressed since I used to work in broadcasting, knew both those radio icons, and was a fill-in host myself for JM in the AM for 15 years.
God bless him, I was convinced that he was convinced it was the right thing to do- even if he was speaking to college students enthralled with Britney Spears and Eminem. He believed in Safam and Shlomo Carlebach.
– Robert Katz

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  • I was privileged to work with Jon for 25 years as a member of the JESNA Board. Jon was an amazing friend and mentor. He had respect for all people and for their points of view. It was clear he thought he had much to learn from others and possessed a remarkable skill- bringing everyone inside the tent. He was the personification of a diplomat at all times.

    Perhaps this was a reflection of Jon’s great humility. He genuinely thought he could learn from others, without regard to their paper credentials or financial status.

    Finally, Jon had vision and courage. He knew how to speak truth to power in a way that showed respect and commanded respect. He led us down paths that proved crucial to the future of Jewish education.

    Jon, you will be missed.

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