February 23, 2020

Jonathan Woocher, leader in Jewish education, dies at 70

Jonathan Woocher, former president and senior fellow of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, and one of the preeminent figures in American Jewish education over the past half century, died of cancer July 7. He was 70.

A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University, Woocher studied religion at Temple University, where he received his master’s and doctorate degrees. He turned his doctoral dissertation into the book “Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews” (1986), a volume that applied the then-developing concept of “civil religion” to American Jewish life, and coined the phrase “civil Judaism.”

Woocher went on to teach at Carleton College in Minnesota, and in what was then known as the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University, before being recruited to the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), where he worked for 27 years, serving as its longtime president and Jewish Ideas Officer — the latter a title that bespoke his passion for ideas that could be translated into practice.

“It’s time to reinvent Jewish education,” Woocher wrote in a seminal essay on the website eJewish Philanthropy. “That isn’t because Jewish education today is bad; it’s because it can be much, much better than it is. It’s a bit like Jewish education today is using a Walkman, while the world is listening to iPods. The music is playing, but it’s a lot more cumbersome and limited than it needs to be.”

Upon JESNA’s closing in 2013, Woocher became president of the Akron, Ohio-based Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. 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.

Woocher, who lived in New Jersey, is survived by his wife, Sherry, two children and one grandchild.