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Appointment of ‘renaissance’ Head Confirms the Emphasis on Education

February 15, 2000
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In a sign that the new Jewish buzzwords of “renaissance and renewal” are intrinsically linked to education, a top Jewish education professional has been tapped to oversee a national push to infuse Jewish life with more meaning.

One of four pillars that will set the agenda for the newly formed United Jewish Communities, the national fund-raising and social service organization, Renaissance and Renewal was formed to promote increased collaboration among federations, the religious movements, Jewish educators and other Jewish organizations in strengthening Jewish identity and community.

The other pillars address fund raising, Israel and overseas needs and human services/social policy.

Although the Renaissance and Renewal pillar’s exact focus is still unclear, the selection of Jonathan Woocher — who will also continue in his role at the Jewish Education Service of North America, a coordinating body for formal and informal Jewish education providers around North America — indicates that advocates for education will have a strong voice within it.

Woocher, who has worked closely with the federation world, was instrumental in creating the Renaissance and Renewal pillar, drafting a platform statement on the topic last year that described Renaissance as efforts to create “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.”

In his statement, Woocher suggested that the UJC work with other organizations in launching bold initiatives to expand and redesign Jewish programming for teens, develop a national infrastructure for teacher training through technology and create a “multifaceted support system to assist day schools striving for excellence.”

Barry Shrage, who also authored a UJC platform statement on Renaissance and Renewal, described Woocher as an “ideal choice” to head the new pillar.

Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said Woocher’s remaining at JESNA means “he can marry the best of both organizations together and get more power for the investment.”

UJC officials said they selected Woocher, who was a professor of Jewish communal studies at Brandeis University before coming to JESNA in 1986, for his combination of experience, connections with various players in Jewish life, expertise and familiarity with the federation world.

It is unclear how long Woocher will hold the two large jobs.

UJC’s president and chief executive officer, Stephen Solender, who for six months last year balanced his current job with his old post as executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York, said Woocher will head the pillar at least through the end of 2000.

“Whether he continues beyond that will be determined later,” Solender said

JESNA’s president, Joe Kanfer, and other board members contacted described the arrangement as a temporary loan their organization is making to the UJC to help get the Renaissance pillar off the ground.

“It’s a temporary move,” said Kanfer.

For his part, Woocher was somewhat cryptic about the future.

“At this point it is what it is,” he said, adding repeatedly, “I have no intention of leaving JESNA.”

Also unclear at this point is how the new pillar will work with JESNA and to what extent their efforts will overlap. With both housed in UJC’s Manhattan headquarters and sharing an executive, the relationship will undoubtedly be close.

In what may be an early demonstration of that relationship, discussion about implementing recommendations of a recently released JESNA task force report urging greater communal funding for Jewish day schools is expected to be the first item on the Renaissance and Renewal pillar’s agenda.

However, UJC officials, Woocher and JESNA board members maintain that JESNA will remain an independent entity with its own board and programs. Beyond that, Woocher said it is too soon for him to comment further on the relationship between the two.

JESNA’s Kanfer predicted that the pillar will be the “focal point for bringing national attention to key issues of renaissance for communities,” while the actual work will continue to be done in agencies like JESNA, Hillel, the Jewish Community Centers Association and the religious movements, all of which are represented on the pillar.

Beryl Geber, the pillar’s chair, agreed, saying that “there are certain overlaps, but JESNA has its own vision” and that the pillar “has a different focus and will lean heavily on its partners in order to ensure that work is getting done.”

Geber said she was eager to begin the pillar’s work.

With the hiring of Woocher, all four of UJC’s pillars are now staffed and active, said Solender, who said he hoped the Renaissance and Renewal pillar will offer national leadership in making “the identification with our Jewish heritage and religious tradition very exciting and very meaningful to the largest number of Jews.”

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