An optimist’s view: Remarks by Jon Woocher, May 18, 2017

Photo by Ellen Dubin

The following are remarks shared by Jonathan Woocher z’l (1946-2017) on the occasion of his receiving a doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from the Jewish Theological Seminary, May 18, 2017.

This is an honor that I truly never expected. All the more so being honored alongside Charles Bronfman, Judith Hauptman, and Danny Matt.

JTS has been a part of my life for 60 years, beginning in 1960 with a decade of involvement with Camp Ramah, as both a camper and subsequently a staff member. And I have fond memories of taking the Long Island Railroad twice a week as a high school senior to attend Seminary College where I got my first taste of Jewish studies as a serious academic discipline. And, I also got to taste the Seminary cafeteria’s famous meatloaf on many a Tuesday night.

Fast forward five plus decades and I’m still drawing on those early experiences that significantly shaped my work over these decades. And my life, when you factor in that I met my wife at Ramah.

As I look at the American Jewish scene today I see two narratives that are in contrast.

One paints a picture of two trends moving in opposite directions: demographic growth and growing strength among Orthodox Jews, especially Haredim. And demographic decline, caused primarily by intermarriage and low birth rates, and growing disaffiliation among non-Orthodox Jews. The result, those who champion this narrative predict, is that absent significant changes in policies and behaviors, there will be a much weakened and diminished Jewish “Center” (actively engaged non-Orthodox Jews) and an overall population with a much larger Orthodox plurality and perhaps a majority within a few decades. To counter this trend, those who support this analysis urge intensified efforts to promote endogamy and conversion as well as increased investment in a variety of “tried and true” educational settings and programs, plus innovative initiatives to reach hard to engage populations, like young adults. The overall objective is to strengthen the Jewish “Center” they perceive as both vital and withering.

The second narrative also sees a community in transformation, but in much more complex and potentially positive ways. It acknowledges the growth in intermarriage, but sees this as an opportunity to engage interfaith families in Jewish life on a large scale – with the right policies and practices. It notes the declining membership in legacy institutions, but points to the wealth of new opportunities for Jewish engagement and self-expression that have mushroomed over the past two decades and the successful efforts by some legacy institutions to transform themselves.  It recognizes that the “Center” may be shrinking, but challenges the mental model and measure of Jewishness that underlie the conventional labeling of “Left,” Center,” and “Right.” Above all, it is open to the notion that Judaism itself may be in the process of evolving into new forms, and it sees this is not as a threat, but as a grand experiment, that we have the opportunity to advance in multiple ways.

As is so often the case in Jewish life, there is truth in both of these narrative – the principle that we at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation call “Eilu v’Eilu.” Yet, I must confess that it is the second narrative that I resonate with most strongly. I believe we are living in a time of great possibility for renewing, re-energizing, and reinventing Jewish life. But I have one big caveat: The creative reinvention of Jewish life in the 21st century must be grounded in a serious appreciation, study, and application of the accumulated wisdom of Jewish teaching and practice as these have developed over the past three millennia. That is to say, as Jonathan Sarna might put it, that the discontinuities that we introduce must be grounded in continuities; we seek innovation that simultaneously disrupts and sustains. Our watchword is Rav Kook’s: Renew the old; sanctify the new. This is not about balancing tradition and change – it is about embracing a tradition of change, one that enables Jewish teaching to speak authentically to the evolving needs and aspirations of successive generations.

I see this happening all around us, and it make me optimistic about the Jewish future. Last year, our Foundation offered a prize for programs that helped people to apply Jewish wisdom in order to live better lives and shape a better world. We were surprised to receive well over 200 applications, the vast majority of which were both remarkably thoughtful in how they incorporated and transmitted Jewish wisdom and highly creative in bringing this wisdom to bear on virtually every aspect of human life, from seeking to grow spiritually to investing ethically and from aging wisely to growing and consuming food justly. This outpouring of creativity is testimony to the fact that Jewish teaching and practice, both traditional and emergent, can speak powerfully in today’s world and can help people find meaning and community.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege of serving on the advisory board of the Davidson school. I am thrilled to see the expanding role it is playing in helping to propel and support the new developments that are reshaping the Jewish educational landscape.

I have no doubt that this is a role that JTS as a whole is and will continue to play on the American Jewish scene.

I thank you again for this honor.

It is gratifying to be able to look back in this way and feel good about the work I’ve tried to do over the years. It feels even better to be able to look forward and to anticipate that what is being built today will create an even brighter Jewish future.

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