Where Jewish Education Helps Students Thrive
A Tribute to Dr. Jonathan Woocher

By Beth Cousens, PhD and David Bryfman, PhD

When Dr. Jonathan Woocher z”l passed away last summer the global Jewish online community buzzed. Notes were left on the eJewishPhilanthropy announcement, tributes were made on JEDLAB and JEducationWorld (which invited readers’ tributes to Jon), thoughtful email newsletters were crafted. Amidst this chatter, a few things were established:

  1. Jon’s reach and impact were extensive and extraordinary. He touched those just beginning their careers along with those in the field for decades – in the United States, Canada, and in Israel. Jon did not discriminate when it came to spending time with people and learning from and with them, whether they worked or volunteered in schools, Federations, experiential organizations, and more.
  2. People got Jon. They valued his capacity to bring into our work varied sources of wisdom. They understood his appreciation of particular types of popular culture, and knew how readily he would laugh at the right thing.
  3. Jon inspired. He was the consummate educator and had something to teach a classroom educator, a youth group director, a synagogue president, a Federation professional. We all left our interactions with him knowing more and understanding our world better.

Concretely, Jon led the field of Jewish education policy in North America for decades. Jon served with JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, for almost thirty years, as the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Ideas Officer. Prior to JESNA, he was on the faculty of Carleton College and Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service; after JESNA, he served as founding President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. The ideas he left us with are layered. His dissertation, updated and published in Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews (1986), put forth a new understanding of the Jewish Federation system and advocated for a renewed ideology that could ground that system in Jewish wisdom. He similarly gave shape and depth to the Jewish Federation commitment to “continuity” of the 1990s. As Jewish continuity aged into the new century, and as Jewish education evolved through those first decades into an increasingly creative and extensive enterprise, Jon continued to document, describe, and analyze trends, identifying what was meaningful and of import and advocating for a kind of Jewish education that would work in the 21st century. His death came in the middle of only the most recent phase of his work, as he shepherded (collaboratively, for sure) a burgeoning conversation about the possibility of “Jewish wisdom” as a paradigm for relevant Jewish education today. Jon’s body of work is extensive, and those in the field of Jewish education policy would do well to read key pieces, follow footnotes, and internalize various concepts. To start, we asked some of Jon’s colleagues and friends to contribute pieces in his honor, reflecting on lessons he taught or on his writing and extending some of his ideas. We are proud to share the resulting monograph as a primer on the work of Jonathan Woocher (also available from The Jewish Education Project here). We hope it will pay deserved tribute to his career, draw new readers into his work, and remind us all of the gifts he gave us. We are grateful to Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah for sponsoring the monograph and to our own organizations, The Jewish Federations of North America and The Jewish Education Project, for supporting the work. We are grateful that the monograph was distributed by the Covenant Foundation at its symposium last week honoring Jon. For additional (hard) copies, contact Beth at Beth.Cousens@JewishFederations.org.

Jon, we miss you. None of us were ready to let you go. You would be surprised, and probably a little embarrassed, but we can’t be the only ones who think, not infrequently, WWJD? (What would Jon do?) It helps, but it’s not the same.

Beth Cousens is Associate Vice President of Jewish Education and Engagement at The Jewish Federations of North America. David Bryfman is Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project.