The Life-Long Innovator: The Legacy of Jonathan Woocher
Following the release in 2013 of the Pew report, A Portrait of American Jewry, Jonathan Woocher and I had many conversations about what all of this meant for the future of the Jewish people. Although the source of much communal consternation, Jon pointed out that there was in fact nothing new about what some regarded as the alarmingly high 67% of Jews who now identified themselves as Jews of no religion. Jon modestly pointed to his own 1981 work, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, which emerged from his dissertation, where he cited various forms of Jewish life that, “legitimates a way of being Jewish and a program of Jewish activity within which the role of the synagogue and the rabbinate - the life of study and prayer, and ritual observance- are no longer primary.”1 Jon’s deep understanding of the Jewish people allowed him to understand that many Jews remained proud and committed without a primary affiliation to religious life and its institutions. This critical theme was one that would underpin much of his thinking in the decades that followed.
That Jews could be engaged in ways other than synagogue life might not seem new, irreverent, or radical today, but at the time of his writing, this dramatically undercut a foundational element of what it meant to be a Jew in American society. What made Jon stand out even more was his ability to express these views from within the organized Jewish community.
While signaling a new way of Jewish life, Jon never dismissed the old. His respect and admiration for synagogue life was always articulated, albeit magnified when he saw synagogues actively engaged in re-imagining themselves for current realities. Even the very institutions that Jon was trying to motivate to change believed that Jon supported and encouraged their work. Jon was able to be subversive and yet respectful. His ability to critique from within only served to intensify his influence as a thought leader within the Jewish community.
In the last few years, one of Jon’s favorite quotes was by William Gibson, a science fiction author, who declared that, "The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed." Jon often followed this quote by referencing computer scientist, Alan Kay who said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."2 In many ways, these two quotes exemplify much of the last two decades of Jon’s work. He was always a sociologist dedicated to understanding the realities of the world in which we lived, but was also forward thinking and driven to harness the people around him, to think, to discuss, to challenge, and ultimately to generate new ways of being and acting Jewish given these new realities.
Over the years, I have heard many people suggest that Jon had the best title ever in the Jewish community – the Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA. Jon certainly had many ideas. He read voraciously about almost any topic that may or may not have been obviously related to his work – yet he always seemed to make the most relevant connections. Jon also met with many people, often just to learn new ideas and hear opinions and thoughts different to his own, and more often than not, just because someone had asked to meet with him. Whether he agreed with these viewpoints or not didn’t seem to matter. Jon always enjoyed learning from others, and did so with gratitude and a smile.
However, to only regard Jon’s work in the realm of “ideas” is to greatly undervalue his impact on the ground. He worked hard to translate his ideas into action so that the ripples could be felt by those whom he regarded as most important – the Jewish learners. We would often spend countless hours discussing issues related to the Jewish Futures Conference at an altitude well beyond 30,000 feet. These were great conversations in the true sense of the word. Jon would cite sources and authors from many eras and a broad diversity of fields. But in almost every conversation, we’d refocus and gently remind one another that we now needed to translate the conversation into a meaningful experience for the learners.
In that spirit, one of Jon’s greatest contributions to Jewish education is his articulation of four design principles for Jewish education in the 21st century. These principles began as lofty ideals to which Jon and his co-authors believe Jewish education ought to aspire.
1. Empowering the learner as an active agent in fashioning his/her own learning experience.
2. The centrality of relationships and the social experience of learning as dynamic forces that shape an evolving identity and build commitment and community in a fragmented world.
3. Jewish learning as “life-centered,” addressing the totality of our aspirations, concerns, and experiences.
4. The Learner as Active Agent.3
These four principles rapidly became the guidelines for many Jewish education initiatives across North America. We at The Jewish Education Project adopted them as our north star for much of our work, recognizing that they both captured much of what we had already known to be effective Jewish education, but also pushing us to consider new possibilities moving forward.
For a moment, take pause to imagine what it could look like if each of these principles was embodied as core to every Jewish educational experience. It is in these moments of pause and reflection that Jon’s brilliance can be most acutely felt.
The first iteration of these principles was co-authored by Jon, Renee Rubin Ross, and Jon’s daughter Meredith Woocher. It is not incidental that Jon was always the first person to honor and respect his co-producers. In fact, despite always shining in the limelight, Jon probably enjoyed mentoring others and being able to shine the light on them.
This was also not the only time that Jon co-authored something with his daughter. In what I believe was one of Jon’s most significant contributions to the field of Jewish education, Jon and Meredith co-authored “Jewish Education in a New Century: An Ecosystem in Transition” in the 2013 American Jewish Yearbook.4 This article clearly and succinctly synthesizes much wisdom and thought – as Jon did so well – in order to make a compelling argument for specific change in Jewish institutional learning.
Jon and Meredith begin their article with a pointed description of today’s Jews:
“The past few decades have seen dramatic developments both in society as a whole and in the Jewish world that have created a new context for the time-honored task of educating new generations of Jews. American Jewry has gone from being an “assimilating” community to a fully assimilated one—but without the disappearance of a distinctive Jewish identity that some predicted. Viewed through a wide lens, Jews have by and large followed societal trends (and sometimes led them) in becoming more diverse as a group and more fluid in their identities (and in becoming and shaping their own experiences (including Jewish experiences); in comfortably moving among multiple communities; in viewing institutions with diminished deference and without long-term loyalties; and in voraciously adopting new communications technologies that change how we work, connect, recreate, and learn.”
However, this creates a problem for Jewish education:
“While the institutional structures of American Jewish life, including its educational structures, do not look dramatically different, at least at first glance, the people who populate (or fail to populate) these structures and the attitudes and aspirations they bring with them are quite different. In such a situation, Jewish education could not remain static, and, indeed, with accelerating speed, Jewish education has begun to change.”
And as he would always do, Jon would never conclude without providing at least one solution – in this case, the breakdown of the dichotomy between Jewish startups and legacy institutions, and a desire to ensure that any changes that occur would purposefully influence the people who matter most – the learners (i.e. the Jewish people):
“Over the past decade that ecosystem has expanded to encompass new actors and new resources, and many of its components have worked hard to adapt to the changing climate in which they function. Nonetheless, the ecosystem has changed more at its edges than at its core, which leads to the question of whether the scope and pace of adaptation have been sufficient to ensure its continued robustness, especially for its most important inhabitants: learners.
“There are times in an ecosystem’s development when expansion and adaptation may not be sufficient. This may well be such a time for Jewish education. If this is the case, then what is needed for Jewish education to thrive going forward is a reconfiguration, a reorganization of its components and of the relationships among them to address more effectively some of the longstanding weaknesses of the system and some of the emerging challenges cited above.”5
The Jewish innovation sector became the focus of much of Jon’s attention. From his role in convening the first-ever Consultation on Jewish Social Entrepreneurship and New Leadership Development in 2008, to his ongoing involvement on the board of Bikkurim, and with The Joshua Venture, Jump Start, Up Start and other important organizations in the Jewish innovation space, Jon saw innovation as critical for the thriving of the Jewish people.
Despite being deeply committed to innovation, Jon was adamant that it should never be for innovation’s sake. He believed that the institutions of 20th century Jewish life would not be able to operate in the same ways, or may not necessarily be the same institutions, that propel us to where we need to be. Throughout his time at JFNA (formerly UJC) and later at JESNA, Jon was often cited as the leading voice in the Jewish Continuity movement. However, as recalled by Joe Kanfer at Jon’s funeral, Jon was also one of the first to recognize that we needed to identify exactly what it was that we were committed to continuing; it was, in fact, a Jewish renewal and renaissance that was really needed. I once asked Jon via email to describe the communal shift from “continuity” to “renewal.” Naively, I expected a pithy response. What ensued were many hours of detailed conversations traversing philosophy, educational and identity theories, and of course Jewish communal politics. In some ways, communal politics was the least of Jon’s favorite interests and yet he, perhaps like no other Jewish educator, knew how to navigate the Jewish community and all of its various stakeholders, paying equal respect to professionals, lay leaders, funders, educators, as well as the learners and their families.
Jon’s move from “continuity” towards “renaissance” and “renewal” was accentuated further in the last few years with his simultaneous gravitation towards Jewish wisdom and positive psychology. In Jon’s mind, the two were inextricably linked; Jewish wisdom offered people the knowledge and skills that could help them flourish in the world today. In his tenure at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Jon was a major catalyst for educators and organizations that have begun to use a new set of outcomes for Jewish education and engagement. As he would write (hyperlinks and all):
“Today, though, we see Jewish wisdom in a variety of forms being put to work deliberately and self-consciously to address a host of human needs and aspirations. From helping parents to pass on healthy values to their children to tackling the challenges of ecological sustainability and social injustice, Jewish wisdom is now being studied, interpreted, re-packaged, and enacted in a diverse array of programs and settings. Communities inspired by Jewish wisdom are multiplying, not only in traditional religious forms, but in new configurations with specific foci on Jewish learning, spiritual practice, social action, and cultural creativity. What all of these endeavors share is a commitment to using Jewish wisdom as a pathway to human flourishing.”6
Positive psychology also provided the foundation for The Jewish Education Project’s recent commitment to establishing a new set of outcomes for Jewish education, particularly in the teen engagement space. Early on in our work, we had established that for Jewish education and engagement to be relevant to today’s Jewish teens it must help them to grapple with three of the most critical existential questions being confronted by adolescents: “Who am I?”; “With whom and what am I connected?” and; “How can I bring about change in this world?” Jon was involved in these discussions from the outset and brought extensive intellect and rigor to this research. But Jon was also concerned that the outcomes framework we were establishing was too
passive and did not give enough attention to the active roles that young people were playing, and should be playing, in developing their current and future selves. Through Jon’s influence we soon added a fourth question to guide our outcomes framework, “To whom and for what am I responsible in this world?”7 In this question, we get a further glimpse into Jon’s commitment to the Jewish people as a collective as well as his faith that individual human beings could contribute meaningfully to the world.
Jon would argue strongly that Jewish wisdom could contribute to all of life’s existential questions. He would further argue that if we as Jewish educators cannot make those connections for our learners, then we run the risk of Judaism becoming irrelevant. The severity of his message however, was also tempered with an equally important commitment to ensure that the Jewish educational experience be filled with joy.
“Finally, the message of Purim (and of many other anti-structural celebrations) is that life is meant to be enjoyed. Joy is not constant, nor does it come without trials and tribulations, but simcha – joy – is not only pleasurable, it is generative. It inspires us to be expansive, to share, to create more joy. Joy is contagious... To be sure, simcha is not the only Jewish sensibility we wish to see cultivated. But, at a time when too many people’s experience of Jewishness is one of boredom or burden, making that experience more joyful can open the door to a richer engagement with Judaism’s many dimensions.”8
Every conversation with Jon ended with a warm smile and a chuckle. Jon’s warmth exemplified his optimism. An optimism that, despite his concerns about the future of the Jewish people, reinforced his faith in individuals, the many he mentored directly and the countless more that he influenced, through his written and spoken words.
Most people do not have the opportunity to choose their mentors. In a rare turn of fate, my mentor and inspiration also became my colleague. I was fortunate, like many others, to be able to connect with Jon, finding mentorship, colleagueship, and so often friendship. As was cited after Jon’s passing by multiple people, “Ase Lecha Rav, U’Kne Lecha Chaver (find for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend).”9 This was one of Jon’s favorite teachings, but also the mantra by which he lived.
In the week before Jon’s passing, I had reached out to him to see if there was anything that I, or others, could do to help. Jon’s brief, but poignant response was, “Just plan a great conference.” May that be our charge moving forward: all of us who are committed to Jewish education and the Jewish people – in honor and respect of our colleague, mentor and friend, Jonathan Woocher – continue to strive for greatness in everything that we do on behalf of the Jewish people.
David Bryfman is the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project.
1. Woocher, Jonathan, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, Bloomington, Indiana Press, 1986, p.163.
4. Woocher, Jonathan and Woocher, Meredith, Jewish Education in a New Century: An Ecosystem in Transition, American Jewish Year book, volume 113 (pp 3 – 57)
5. Woocher, Jonathan and Woocher, Meredith, Jewish Education in a New Century; An Ecosystem in Transition, American Jewish Year book, volume 113 (pp 3 – 57)
9. Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:6