Eulogy for Jon Woocher, a Remembrance from Joe Kanfer

A Remembrance of Jon Woocher

The following eulogy was delivered by Joe Kanfer, Founding Director of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, at the memorial service for Dr. Jonathan Woocher 
July 9, 2017, in Livingston, NJ.

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.

Initial Reflections on the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom

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By Jon Woocher, Senior Fellow

 

When we initiated the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, we did not know what to expect. Would organizations be interested in a competition that asked them to describe how they were “applying Jewish wisdom” in their activities? Would they even understand what we meant by that phrase? Would we find a handful of examples or more than a few? Would the organizations who understood themselves to be applying Jewish wisdom in their work be able to demonstrate that their programs reached a significant number of participants or had any impact on them?

Now that the inaugural Prize competition is reaching its final stages, with the winners due to be chosen this month by a panel of external judges, the answers to some of these questions seem clear. Well over two hundred organizations submitted programs that sought to apply Jewish wisdom in a wide variety of ways to a broad range of life concerns, reaching diverse populations. But even more impressive than the number of programs was the quality of reflection revealed in the submissions. We asked applicants for the Prize (among other questions): 1) What Jewish wisdom they use in their work; 2) How their program makes this wisdom accessible and applicable to their audiences’ lives; and 3) What they have learned about applying Jewish wisdom. Their answers to these questions provide a wide window into a phenomenon in American Jewish life that we now have reason to believe is both more widespread and more impactful than has previously been recognized. Amidst the hand-wringing about assimilation and disaffiliation that often dominates discussion of the state of Jewish life, we see enormous grass-roots energy and creativity in developing new forms of Jewish self-expression and community-building that surveys simply cannot capture.

Fully mining the treasure trove of information contained in the 200 plus Semifinalists for the Prize (all of the program profiles are available at www.lippmankanferprize.org) will take many months. We plan to share our own ongoing analysis of the applications with you on a regular basis, and we invite others to use the database (including supplementary materials on many of the programs that we will be happy to make available) for their own inquiries and research.

Based on an initial reading of the submissions, we can offer a few findings of note that bear further investigation and elaboration:

  1. Program developers and sponsors are not shying away from incorporating serious Jewish content in their programs, but are acutely aware of the need to make this content relevant to their audiences.

Far from offering a “Judaism lite” approach, many of the programs submitted incorporate original Jewish texts, traditional Jewish practices (even including some that might be labeled “esoteric”), and serious encounter with these as important components. At the same time, programs strive to connect these to real life interests and concerns of participants and to empower participants to engage actively and creatively, not just passively, with these wisdom elements. Many programs are explicit in articulating the Jewish values and concepts that they seek to embody and to transmit, and they present these as directly relevant to the lives of their audiences.

  1. There is virtually no area of contemporary life that is not addressable and being addressed by Jewish wisdom.

The breadth and diversity of areas where Jewish wisdom is being actively applied today is impressive. The programs submitted for the Prize cover every age and life-stage and bring Jewish teachings and practices to bear on everything from physical well-being to spiritual development to social change to planetary sustainability. Programs are applying Jewish concepts and values to investing, parenting, food production and distribution, addiction recovery, negotiating adolescence and ageing, building caring communities, making art, developing leaders, and a myriad of other areas that reflect both timeless human concerns and timely issues. Although it is certainly true that not every Jew has access to the full range of these programs – many are local and relatively small, it is also true that these programs demonstrate the nearly unlimited potential of Jewish wisdom to help people live better lives and shape a better world.

  1. “Jewish wisdom” is a compound of teachings, practices, and relationships.

Perhaps the most far-reaching finding from an initial review of the submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize is that “Jewish wisdom” as embodied in these programs is more than an intellectual construct. Yes, teachings – ideas, concepts, values – are central to what nearly all of these programs seek to convey. And, indeed, many of the programs include study and discussion of Jewish texts, classical and contemporary, as an important component. But, the majority of the programs also involve two other dimensions that make “Jewish wisdom” something more powerful than merely a set of ideas. Many of the programs embed their teaching in a set of practices that bring these teachings to life. These are not only how wisdom gets “applied,” but how it gets conveyed, in ritual (traditional and new), in artistic production, in work to make change in the world. There is a second key element as well in these programs: the fostering of relationships. Many of the programs submitted not only transmit ideas, they create communities. How teachings, practices, and relationship-building work together to create impact – to change lives – is one of the aspects of transmitting and applying Jewish wisdom in the contemporary world that bears further examination.

These three initial “findings” from the set of submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize in Applied Jewish Wisdom only begin to scratch the surface of what we hope to learn from this rich data source. The individual programs themselves represent potential models for replication and adaptation – and we hope that people will find both inspiration and practical ideas in them. Taken as a whole, they present a portrait of Jewish activism and creativity that is exciting and energizing. Although only a few of the programs will in the end be the Prize winners, the real winners are all of us who are benefitting from these programs, whose lives are being bettered and who are finding in Jewish wisdom a profound source of inspiration and guidance.

Aaron Dorfman Named President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 7/20/16

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Dorfman To Take Reins of Foundation Sept. 1, Founding President To Become Foundation’s First Senior Fellow

Akron, OH –Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah announced today that Aaron Dorfman will become its second President, effective September 1, 2016. Part of Lippman Kanfer Family Philanthropies, the Foundation launched in 2013 with the purpose “to repair and enrich the world through thriving Jewish life.” Dorfman will take over the role from Jonathan Woocher, PhD, who will remain on the Foundation’s professional staff as its inaugural Senior Fellow.

“I’m honored,” Dorfman shared, “to have been chosen to work alongside the board, staff, and grantees of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to build upon and grow the Foundation’s impact. In this era of complexity and uncertainty, I believe that Judaism’s ever-growing reservoir of wisdom can offer valuable guidance for our personal lives, our communities, and the broader world. I’m grateful for the strong foundation laid by Jon Woocher and am excited by the opportunity to continue to catalyze meaningful and lasting change.”

A Brooklyn resident with more than 20 years of experience in the Jewish community, Aaron Dorfman spent a decade at American Jewish World Service, rising from Director of Education to Vice President for National Programs, building the division and managing both program strategy and grantmaking with great success, overseeing strategic planning and an organizational restructure. An alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Dorfman was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and has also trained with the AK Rice Institute and the Rockwood Leadership Program. He began his career as the Director of Informal Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Known as an effective and inclusive agent for social change as well as a respected leader, Dorfman will be returning to the Jewish professional world from his most recent role as Vice President and Campaign Director at Encore.org, an organization that mobilizes older adults to support the social good.

“Aaron brings passion, vision, and expertise to our Foundation’s work,” says Board Chair Marcella Kanfer Rolnick. “His experience building and leading teams and strategic change will help advance our impact in the Jewish community. We look forward to what he will be able to bring to our partner and grantee relationships, as a thought leader and an experienced educator in his own right.” Kanfer Rolnick cited Dorfman’s wide interests, dedication to family, strong Jewish values, and “menschlichkeit” as key reasons the board selected him as President. She added, “Aaron has big shoes to fill, following our first President, Dr. Jonathan Woocher. We’re confident he will do so, in collaboration with our other Foundation colleagues, and we’re also delighted that Jon will continue to be a unique intellectual resource for the Foundation in his new role as Senior Fellow.”

“It’s been a privilege,” said Woocher, “to shape the Foundation as it emerged into the Jewish world with its mission to help Jews and fellow travelers apply Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to live better lives and shape a better world. Aaron is uniquely qualified to take the Foundation forward on the next steps in its journey. I look forward to remaining actively involved and working under Aaron’s leadership to further the work of Living Torah.”

Since its founding in 2013, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has distributed more than $4.4 million in grants to over 40 grantees, hosted a number of gatherings convening Jewish professionals, funders and other thought leaders, released a Jewish Sensibilities card deck as a tool for the field with over 2,300 distributed to date, and launched the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, which will award its first prizes this December.

 

 

Announcing: Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom

An important announcement from our Board President, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, joined by Board Member Joe Kanfer and Foundation President Jon Woocher.

 

 
 

Visit our prize site at www.lippmankanferprize.org and apply NOW!

 

And please help us spread the word!!!  We’ve made it easy for you – just click here to instantly Tweet: Check out the new prize from @lippmankanfer http://ctt.ec/31z8a+ Recognizing and rewarding programs that apply Jewish Wisdom

Applying Jewish Wisdom – Making A Watchword

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By Jon Woocher, President

 

There’s great risk in trying to characterize the historical moment one is living in. I should know. In the early and mid 1980s I wrote about the ascendancy of an American Jewish “civil religion,” anchored in the Jewish federation system and celebrating values of Jewish solidarity and survivalism. Within a few years it had become evident that this civil religion was in fact beginning to decline in its reach and influence. Personalism, not communalism, was the growing force in Jewish life – as in American religious life in general. 1980s Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart), not 1960s Robert Bellah (“Civil Religion in America”), was speaking more directly to the moment, and would continue to do so for several decades.

So it is with some trepidation that I suggest that the present moment in American Jewish life is marked by a growing focus on a new defining theme. Nonetheless, I believe the evidence is accumulating that this is precisely the case.  Continue reading

Reflections on the turning of the fiscal year

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The Jewish calendar includes a number of new year’s days (four, according to the Mishnah). January 1 is not among them. Nonetheless, since the transition to 2016 does coincide with the start of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah’s new fiscal year, this is perhaps an opportune time for me to do some reflecting on the past year and some anticipating of what is to come.

Perhaps the pivotal moment of the past year for me came relatively late, in October, with the publication of a Statement on Jewish Vitality, an effort, signed by 74 leaders from various parts of the Jewish community, to mobilize support for a series of programmatic investments aimed at strengthening American Jewish life. The statement was directed at funders (like our foundation) and policy makers. It touched off a vigorous debate about the analysis and strategy underlying its recommendations, as well as the tone of the statement itself. As part of that debate, we as a foundation did something we rarely do: we issued a formal statement in response, laying out our reasons for dissatisfaction with the original statement and outlining our own vision and strategy for promoting Jewish vitality. Continue reading

Jewish Continuity at 25

“Jewish Continuity” at 25: What Did We Achieve? What Have We Learned?

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Reflections by Jon Woocher, President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

 

It isn’t really the 25th anniversary of what came to be called the “Jewish continuity” endeavor in North America. The first Continuity Commission was established in Cleveland before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was mounted; and the first results of the 1990 NJPS – including the alarm-ringing, hand-wringing statistic of a 52% intermarriage rate – didn’t appear until the calendar had turned. But, 1990 is a convenient enough date to mark the beginning of a significant effort that has unfolded over the past two and a half decades aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and engagement among American Jews, many of whom, it was argued then and since (viz. the reactions to the 2013 Pew study) are in danger of or are already being lost to Jewish life as active participants.

I’ve been part of and a witness to these efforts. Continue reading

Living Torah and the New Jewish Learning

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Nearly a century ago, the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig called for a “new Jewish learning,” one that “no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round, from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah…. [I]n being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.”

This remains a bold prescription – and certainly not the only way to study Torah and do Jewish education. But, the reality to which Rosenzweig was responding then is still with us today: For many Jews, starting with the text, with traditional teaching, begs an important question – why and how is this relevant to my life? Continue reading

Universalism vs. Particularism – Thoughts from Limmud NY

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Last weekend, for the first time in more years than I would like to admit, I participated in the Limmud NY conference, held (appropriately, for those who believe New Yorkers are inherently imperialistic) in Stamford, Connecticut. Limmud is now a global “brand” for dozens of conferences held annually around the world, including the “mother ship” that takes place in England each December. Limmud NY is North America’s largest, with more than 700 participants, and it’s distinctive among Jewish conferences in several ways. Continue reading