Jonathan Woocher, leading Jewish educational theorist, dies at 70


(JTA) — Jonathan Woocher, who helped shaped American Jewish educational priorities as the longtime head of the Jewish Educational Service of North America and later as founding president and senior fellow of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, has died.

Woocher, who lived in South Orange, New Jersey, died Friday at age 70. The cause was cancer, according to an announcement by the Lippman Kanfer Foundation.

Woocher, who worked closely with the federation world, was instrumental in creating the Renaissance and Renewal pillar, or department, of the former United Jewish Communities — now known as the Jewish Federations of North America — in 2000. He described his efforts as creating “a far more vibrant, engaging, content-full Jewish life for large numbers of Jews here and around the globe than we ever could have imagined just a few decades ago.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, in a statement, remembered Woocher as a “visionary and extraordinary builder and teacher,” whose “advice and counsel was sought out by institutions, organizations, and individuals across the spectrum of Jewish communal activity.”

A professor of Jewish communal studies at Brandeis University before coming to JESNA in 1986, Woocher was admired for his experience in Jewish education, connections with various players in Jewish life and familiarity with the Jewish philanthropic establishment. He led JESNA, which shut down in 2013 as federations shifted their educational funding from national efforts to local ones, for 27 years.

Woocher joined the Akron, Ohio-based Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah in 2013 as its first president and became a senior fellow there in September 2016. The foundation makes grants to individuals and organizations that support creative approaches to Jewish education and life. It also awards the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom.

Woocher earned a bachelor of arts degree at Yale University, and a master’s and doctorate in religious studies from Temple University under the tutelage of two important figures in Jewish social science, Daniel Elazar and Charles Liebman. He served on the faculty of Carleton College in Minnesota and at Brandeis, where he taught in the Benjamin S. Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service.

Woocher was the author of “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews” (1986) and numerous articles on Jewish education, community and religious life.

“In addition to his many administrative accomplishments, Woocher will be remembered for his fertile mind and path-breaking articles, 49 of which are available through the Berman Jewish Policy Archive,” wrote his friend and colleague Jonathan Sarna, the Brandeis University historian and chair of the H-Judaic discussion network.

In a 2010 essay for JTA, Woocher described the changes facing American Jewry and the need for educators to move beyond a narrow focus on making Jews “more Jewish.”

“Stronger Jewish identity will certainly be an outcome of good Jewish education, but it will be embraced as learners discover that Jewish tradition and Jewish community can help them live richer, fuller, more purposeful lives,” he wrote. “Too often today our curricula focus on a narrow range of skills and rituals without connecting these to the larger issues that animate genuine concern and conversation and the larger world in which we comfortably live.”

Woocher is survived by his wife, Sherry, two children and one grandchild.

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