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.