In her column below from last week’s JFNA email, Beth Cousens talks about the life and legacy of Jonathan Woocher. As the sad news of his death spread through the social media world, people shared anecdotes of their encounters and relationships with this visionary in the field of Jewish education.
In addition to those personal encounters people had, there are the students of all ages who learned from Jon, either in person or through his written word, perhaps never meeting him but knowing his work and gaining insight through his scholarship.
In celebration of his life, we invite our readers to share a favorite learning from Jon – gained in person or through a paper or book that he authored – that influenced your own life and/or work. We will share these in our August 1 email, in honor of the conclusion of shloshim. Submissions may be up to 200 words and can be emailed to [email protected] by July 30.
We dedicate this email and this week’s blog post, which calls for an investment in Jewish educators as our greatest resource, to Dr. Jonathan Woocher, z”l. Jon died Friday morning, July 7 (13 Tammuz), at the age of 70. He was the intellectual owner of our work in Jewish education policy, the ultimate champion of the idea that we can work proactively to reshape what Jewish education is and, therefore, who Jews can be.
Contribution and leadership can be funny things. There is charismatic, pound-the-table leadership — and Jon had plenty of that. He spoke continually and tirelessly over his 30-plus year tenure with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), and then with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah (and before that, during his years at Carleton College and in Brandeis’ Hornstein program). He was an in-demand teacher at Federations because of his leadership, and because he was always different, relevant, helpful, and meaningful. He took things we were sensing intuitively and gave them language and depth. He also spoke Federation; he understood it, and he respected its capabilities. We understand Jewish education, Jewish life, and our role and potential differently because of Jon.
And then there’s contributive or facilitative leadership, the kind where it’s hard to say that any one person did something, even though without that person, things would have been different. Jon observed early — maybe was the first observer — the complexity of our institutional community and that it is an ecosystem. The agents in our Jewish educational infrastructure are interdependent. This matters from a policy perspective, but it also matters in understanding Jon’s legacy. JESNA — particularly Jon — was instrumental in shaping Bikkurim and the Covenant Foundation, which, in turn, have contributed much to North American Jewish life today. JESNA facilitated countless initiatives that launched the careers and work of educators throughout Jewish life (the Lainer Interns in Israel served as the entrée into Jewish education for many college students who were committed to Jewish life, not interested in a pulpit path, and unsure of what to do with their goals). At the heart of JESNA was the leadership of some of the most talented volunteers in Jewish education today. They came to JESNA because of their talent and passion, and their talent and passion grew in partnership with Jon. He did not do it alone, but he was at the center of all of this.
He learned, too. One of the most remarkable things about Jon was that he was comfortable learning from anyone. Because he learned voraciously, he was interested in what the person across the table from him was saying. Even if that person was 21 years old. Even if that person had seen less of Jewish education than he had. A good idea was a good idea, wherever it came from.
Perhaps because of this, a few of us feel lucky enough to be working now in the generation after Jon, in the intellectual home that he created. Jon established a place for us to exercise our own skills, ideas, and talents. The field of Jewish education policy existed before Jon, for sure, but we do our work differently because of the time he spent with us.
My guess is that shiva for Jon is filled with stories of menschlichkeit, of humanity, of creativity, of tirelessness, of ideas, of family, and of good colleagues. I imagine his own Jewish experiences, even as a child, will come up, since that’s how long he knew some of his colleagues. Go to shiva if you can. You will hear of the life of someone who exemplified the life we want for any graduates of any of our programs, someone who took a rich Jewish childhood and turned it into his true life’s work.
I guess the thing now to say, then, is thank you. Thank you for giving us a vision of what is possible, a vision I know I will return to throughout my career. Thank you for making sure you wrote a lot of it down (check out the resource list at the end of this email). We are much better because you did your work.
In the Jewish tradition, we say when we hear of a death, “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” often translated as, Blessed be the righteous judge. I have always had trouble with that phrase. How can I, in the moments of my deepest vulnerability, proclaim a G-d to be righteous, to do what is good and fair? Perhaps dayan is not the G-d who judges and takes away, but who evaluates with kindness and compassion. Perhaps emet is the truth that we return quickly to the earth, that we have but a short time to leave our mark, and that life is not really ours. And perhaps, of course, we are meant to say the phrase precisely because it’s hard, because being in relationship with Judaism when we are in our greatest need and when it’s the most challenging is the prize.
A Jonathan Woocher Reading List
Jon’s prescience, intelligence, and creativity can be seen in the following, all of which are still helpful in understanding North American Jewish life today.
Jewish Education in a New Century: An Ecosystem in Transition (AJ Yearbook, 2013) (with Meredith Woocher)
Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century (Journal of Jewish Education, 2012) (with Meredith Woocher and Renee Rubin Ross)
Planning for Jewish Education in the 21st Century: Toward a New Praxis (International Handbook of Jewish Education, 2011)
Toward a “Grand Unified Theory” of Jewish Continuity (in A Congregation of Learners, 1994)
Jewish Education: Crisis and Vision (in Imagining the Jewish Future, 1992)
On the Passing of the Ethnic Era: A Response (Sh’ma Magazine, 1990)
“Jewish Survivalism as Communal Ideology: An Empirical Assessment” (Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 1981)
To our holy work,
This email is shared with permission from the author.