Jonathan Woocher, passionate educator and scholar
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Jonathan Woocher, a national leader in Jewish education who argued for a “Copernican revolution” in the field, died Friday, July 7, at the age of 70. The cause of death was cancer.
He lived in South Orange and was a longtime member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, where he often served as a prayer leader. He was remembered at his funeral, held July 9 at Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston, for his intellect, his kindness, and his singing voice.
Woocher shaped a generation of Jewish educators and thinkers. He was president and then chief ideas officer at the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), where he spent 27 years, until it closed in 2013. He then joined the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, a think tank for Jewish education headquartered in Akron, Ohio, and became its first president. He transitioned to a role as senior fellow in September 2016.
He was a sought-after expert who aided camps, schools, federations, and other organizations, and rarely said no to people.
Philanthropist Paula Gottesman of Morristown has credited him Woocher with providing critical advice when she and her husband Jerry had an idea for middle-class tuition subvention in the mid-1990s. In a 2015 interview with NJJN, she recalled, “He said, ‘There’s no magic bullet. Just try it. If you just see a need, do it.’ And that’s been our philosophy since.”
The Gottesmans ultimately pioneered the program at what is now the Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph. The subvention program is now run through the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative, and has become a national model for affordability at Jewish day schools.
At his own synagogue, Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Woocher often led Shacharit on Rosh HaShanah, and Mincha on Yom Kippur. He helped launch the congregation’s long-running (but now defunct) Shabbat learner’s minyan, and was a regular Megillat Esther reader — he read this past Purim. Many there recall, as one past president put it, “a beautiful, pure singing voice.”
For many years he led a separate family service held on the High Holy Days at the synagogue. When he wasn’t leading, he could be found sitting in the back section of pews on the right side of the sanctuary.
An advocate for innovation in Jewish education, he wrote frequently in publications, from the Forward to e-Jewish philanthropy on shifting from an educator-centered field to a learner-centered field, always challenging the Jewish community to do education better, to meet the challenges of the future. He rarely looked at the quality of Jewish education through rose-colored glasses.
In the 2012 collection, “Imagining the Future: Essays and Responses,” edited by David A. Teutsch and published by SUNY Press, Woocher wrote, “Jewish education is not the shining beacon of success it might and should be, given the dollars we spend on it, the creativity of the people involved to it, or our professions of commitment to it.”
He envisioned, as he wrote in his essays, “a seamless continuum of educational experiences that fit naturally into the life of the Jew and of the Jewish community.” He believed Jewish education could be “a self-validating goal, and intrinsically rewarding activity” rather than a means to some other end.
In a 2006 opinion piece that appeared in the Forward, “Jewish Education Needs A Copernican Revolution,” he suggested the Jewish equivalent of “Enterprise Rent-A-Car — a movement to pick up individuals and families where they are and give them the wherewithal and guidance to take their own educational journeys.” It would be a system, he wrote, in which “the learners drive the education.”
Woocher received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and earned a master’s degree and doctorate in religious studies from Temple University. He served on the faculties of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. In addition to his many articles, he is the author of “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews.”
In that book, he described the “civic religion” of the organized American-Jewish community. Historian Jonathan Sarna praised the work as “insightful and provocative,” and dubbed it a study of “federation Judaism”; that is, as Sarna put it, “the faith expounded and exemplified by those who play an active role in the work of the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish federations across the country.”
He is survived by his wife, Sherry; his children, Meredith (Peter Sheingold) and Benjamin; his father, Howard; a brother, Fredric; and a grandson, Aden.