This is the Jewish wisdom we’re holding as we enter into 5778. Wishing you a sweet new year – from all of us at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.
A Remembrance of Jon Woocher
It was the early 1980’s. 1983 I think.
A group of young Jewish Americans traveled to Israel to meet with a group of young Israelis. Most of us were in our 30s. We met in Sdom at the Dead Sea. The ostensible purpose was building bridges among future leaders. The first step was figuring each other out.
At the end of conference, after a late night bus ride back to Jerusalem we found ourselves sitting in the lobby of the King David, waiting for our rooms. Half asleep, I heard a booming voice, a voice I did not know but would come to revere.
Jon, then a professor at Brandeis, was talking, and everyone was listening – and all the nuances that I missed in Sdom became clear.
That was the first time I saw Jon Woocher.
Fast forward a few years and Bennett Yanowitz z”l asked me to join the JESNA board. I was reluctant, but to appease him, I said I would attend one meeting since it was held in conjunction with the Council of Jewish Federations meeting I was attending. I walked in late and sat in the corner so as not to be noticed.
But then – that booming voice.
It took less than 10 minutes of listening to Jon talk about Jewish education to know I was in the right place, listening to the right voice.
For more than three decades, that voice, and the heart behind it, would guide my work in the Jewish world – and I dare say, guide the work of so many of us here today.
Over the past month as Jon’s health declined, something incredible, remarkable happened. An amazing outpouring of messages, more than one hundred, came to Jon expressing love and appreciation from people who wanted him to know what impact he had on them and what he meant to them. So many reached out to say, “You were my teacher, you gave me the insights and encouragement that transformed my work. You are my friend.”
And then since his passing, there have been hundreds more tributes in every Jewish forum and over a thousand messages. Let me quote headlines from just a few:
From the Jewish Education Project: “Amid the sadness, we take some measure of solace in the fact that his ideas and his spirit of innovation will live on.”
From PRIZMAH: “The field of Jewish education would simply not exist as it does today but for Jon’s passion, creativity and generosity of spirit.”
From Cass Gottleib, past Chair of JESNA: “It seems that he was always challenging us to think expansively about future possibilities for Jewish life and learning — but not just to dream, rather to act. It is very hard to contemplate a Jewish future without Jon.”
From his dear friend Howard Charish: “His heart was as big as his big picture ideas. As my beloved friend, I will miss his inspiration, kindness and optimism.”
From a former student at the Hornstein Program at Brandeis in the mid-1980s: “His voice has echoed in my brain throughout my career.”
From Leora Issacs: “We have lost one of gedolai hador.”
From Sid Schwartz: “The Jewish community has lost one of its giants.”
From Ron Wolfson: “When the history of Jewish education in America is written, Jon Woocher will be hailed as one of the g’dolim. We will never know a sweeter soul. May God comfort his beloved Sherry and Family.”
Why is it that Jon had such great impact? It is clear it was Jon’s unique combination of brilliance, humility and humanity.
Never would Jon agree with a bad idea or a misreading of the situation. But somehow, he never made us feel inadequate. He just quietly led us to see the light.
Just think of all the landscapes where Jon made a huge impact: JESNA, The National Commission on Identity and Continuity, Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Bikkurim, Covenant, Lippman Kanfer Institute for Innovation and so many more.
He can take significant credit for the emergence of a vigorous Innovation sector in American Jewish life.
Jon joined Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah in 2013 as its first President and played a central role in shaping the agenda of Jewish wisdom for Jewish life. And I got the immeasurable joy of continuing to work with my friend.
People eventually die, walls eventually crumble, but words and ideas live forever. And Jon was a master of words and ideas. I think it is important that we recall just a sample of Jon’s wisdom. Jon was always ten years ahead of his time, operating in the world of today and urging us forward to a better future.
Among the powerful ideas that Jon nurtured was learner-centered education. “The key to success,” he said, “is understanding what people are seeking and finding ways to meet their needs, not getting them to fulfill ours.”
He was always willing, inspiring us to innovate. “We have to be willing,” he wrote, “to act boldly, take some risks, make some mistakes …not at the margins of organizational life, but at the center of the organized Jewish community.”
Jon was Mr. Continuity, but even before that idea’s time had passed, Jon was the first to challenge it. He wrote, “We need new and better language for the important conversations we will be having. Continuity’s Rhetorical days are over. Soon Jewish identity may join it. People don’t seek Continuity or Identity: they seek wisdom for their lives, values to guide them; emotional depth, spiritual elevation, friends and family to share their joys and sorrows.” That is Jon’s enduring contribution – to open us up to new ideas, to lead us to adopt them.
He read the business press voraciously and particularly loved behavioral economics. I thought I was ahead of the curve, but I was always trying to catch up with him. When I discovered Peter Senge and Chaos Theory, I called Jon to alert him. He had already read Senge and he quietly explained to me the parts that I had not understood.
How many of us could answer to the command assay lecha rav – Find for yourself a teacher. All of us who knew Jon.
And how often could Jon have answered uknay lecha haver – Acquire for yourself a friend. Every time. Jon made friends of us all.
Jon’s Hebrew name is Yosef ben Tzvi Ha’Kohen v’Ruth. When Aharon Ha’Kohen, the high Priest, died as recounted in last week’s parsha, we are told ALL the house of Israel bewailed. This was not said for any other of our forefathers. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses all had their enemies.
Pirkei Avot – Chapter 1 explains:
Hillel Omer, Hillel would say,
Hevei mitalmid shel Aharon, we should be the disciples of Aharon,
Ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, like Aharon, we should love peace and pursue peace.
Ohev et habriot umerkavan laTorah, like Aharon, we should love other people and bring them close to Torah.
Is this not our Jon?
But even Torah analogies are not perfect. Because unlike Aharon, Jon got to see the fruits of his work blossom. His voice, his booming voice, lives on.
One thing Jon and I shared personally was the permission to unabashedly brag about our children and grandchildren. Jon about Ben’s cooking and about Meredith’s incisive mind and great writing skills and about Aden’s everything, including his Lego skills.
Sherry, I know you have lost your soulmate. Ben, I know you have lost your best friend. Meredith, I know you have lost your mentor and alter ego. Aden, your beloved Papa. Howard, a son who called every day and lovingly came to Florida regularly. Fred, a brother who was so proud of you and so wanted Biden to be president so you could be his legal counsel. Our hearts break with yours.
Jon was not only my teacher, but teacher of my children, Marcella and Mamie and Josh, who worked with him in our foundation and came to love him as I did.
Perhaps my greatest learning from Jon was a complete new understanding of the power of tzim tzum. How could it possibly be that he never self-promoted, never was personally aggressive, always made room for others, yet his ideas prevailed?
I would call Jon with a new idea, and a half-hour later, either I knew it was misguided, or it had transformed into something with possibility.
A couple of weeks ago Jon and Sherry visited with Pam and me in Florida. He was already getting weaker, but we dreamt about the future of Jewish Education together, and the future of our friendship.
A week ago Friday, I had the blessing of spending a whole day with Jon. He knew the end was near. Thankfully he was not in pain.
We talked for hours, even though it was not easy for him. Had it been recorded it would have been the history of Jewish education. Jon was so characteristically optimistic about its future.
And, of course, we talked of life. We agreed on most things, but I just didn’t get his thing about the New York Giants and why their new receiver crew might make them a contender this year.
When he napped, Sherry, Ben, Meredith and I tried our best to be hopeful. But it was not to be.
My favorite bracha is chacham harazim. Knower of secrets.
At times like this I begin to lose faith. I am maddened at what secrets could be behind the untimely demise of so great a soul.
But not Jon. He told me he said Modeh Ani every morning. As I cried, he assured me that he felt deep satisfaction that he had done everything in life he could, loved his family unconditionally, and they loved him in return, and that he made a lasting contribution to the Jewish People.
You see, he was still teaching me. That is the last time I saw Jon Woocher. Jon, your voice will be with me forever. The world will miss your deep wisdom and your generous spirit. I will miss you. Baruch dayan emet.
If you would like to share your own remembrance of Dr. Jon Woocher, there is a virtual memorial at www.bernheimapterkreitzman.com where you are invited to share thoughts and fond memories with his family.
The members of the board and staff of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah are deeply saddened by the loss of Founding President Dr. Jonathan Woocher z”l who succumbed to cancer this morning. His impact on our lives and the Jewish people was deep, elevating and lasting. He will be tremendously missed.
The funeral will be on Sunday, July 9, at 1:15 pm at Bernheim Apter Kreitzman Funeral Home, 68 Old Short Hills Road, Livingston, New Jersey. Shiva will be at the home of Sherry Woocher at 227 Thornden Street, South Orange, New Jersey, immediately following interment and through Wednesday, July 12.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time. May they be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and may Jon’s memory be a blessing.
We are proud to have joined with colleagues and partners throughout the American Jewish Community as signators of the following letter in support of the Paris Accords. Read more about this advocacy here, and we invite you to join us.
To leaders within the American Jewish Community:
We are Jews, organizational leaders and rabbis, teachers and students who work passionately towards a bright American Jewish future.
We are also human beings who care deeply about all life.
And from this integrated Jewish and universal perspective, we are shocked by the US government’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Continue reading
Passover is nearly upon us – a holiday that lends itself well to experiments in applied Jewish wisdom, even more than usual, and we hope some of the resources below will help you deepen and expand your experiences this year.
Haggadot and Seder Supplements
Sh’ma Now offers an entire issue on Dayenu, with multiple articles examining the impact, limitations, and nuances of this Jewish Sensibility…plus their printable conversation guide can help you explore further, at a seder or elsewhere.
Mechon Hadar, as always, has a rich collection of thinking on Passover’s themes and texts
And as always: take pieces from the above, find a wealth of other core and supplementary material, and assemble a haggadah that fits your unique personality and needs at Haggadot.com
Videos and Mobile Apps
AJWS offers a version of Dayenu this year designed to get you to talk about the Sensibility (pairs great with our Sh’ma Now link above) And if you need to learn the song, there’s no time like the present.
And a reminder of the breadth of Jewish wisdom – we never get tired of the Rube Goldberg Seder, from the students at Technion!
And…a bit of a stretch we hope you’ll nonetheless appreciate. At the end of the seder, where does our narrative land? Not just freedom but the hope and promise of home. This video from the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus isn’t traditional, but is worth a listen, whether or not it fits into your Passover this year.
In 2016 Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah sponsored a prize competition for programs that apply Jewish wisdom to help people live better lives and shape a better world. More than 200 programs entered the competition, creating a rich database of information about how Jewish wisdom – Jewish values, texts, practices, and historical experience – is being transmitted and used today in a wide range of settings.
To take advantage of this trove of information, the Foundation is seeking proposals from researchers who are interested in exploring aspects of the process of applying Jewish wisdom using the Prize database. The Foundation is interested in learning more about such questions as: What Jewish wisdom do programs embody and teach? What methods do they use to make it accessible and applicable to participants’ lives? What factors help to determine the effectiveness of these programs? And, what impacts do these programs have on participants and on the broader landscape of Jewish and social life?
Full details can be found in the request for proposals, here.
For decades, the Lippman Kanfer family has focused its philanthropy on local Jewish communities and national initiatives to teach Torah — funding causes from the Anshe Sfard Congregation in Akron, Ohio, to a Jewish day school network.
But since Nov. 8, Election Day, the family has been talking about another set of issues — refugees, voting rights and civic engagement. Like so many other things, its giving has been shaken by the Donald Trump administration.
“When it’s time to step up, we have to step up,” said Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, the founding director of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. “We’re grappling with how much we step up fast, where the urgency requires us to act quickly.”
In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader
Pirkei Avot 2:5
Please join us in standing together. Click here to view our statement. Pledge to #StandTogether by posting sharing the video with your networks.
The following Artist’s Statement was composed by Ariel Burger to illuminate his work and process in creating the piece of art commissioned by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to be presented as tangible commemoration of the 2016 Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom.
Many choices go into any work of art, especially when it is commissioned for a specific purpose. This is even more true when those who commission the work are themselves creative thinkers. One of the pleasures of this project was the opportunity to learn and discuss concepts and content choices with the Lippman Kanfer professional team.
Because of the Foundation’s focus on “Living Torah”, and the subject of this Prize, I wanted to portray that concept, while exploring new territory and a new visual lexicon.
After developing several concept sketches, we narrowed them down to three, and then the artistic process guided me to the final image. Continue reading