After two decades as president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America, Jonathan Woocher is taking a new position this month as the organization’s chief ideas officer. Woocher will also become the director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute, Jesna’s recently founded think tank.
The Jewish community has “a lot of organizations that do things, and do things very well,” Woocher said in an interview with the Forward. “Some of them are large and prosperous, and have grown wonderfully over the years — they’re the doers. And then we have, happily, a growing community of researchers in Jewish education. But there wasn’t really a place for bridging between these two worlds.”
The institute, launched in 2006, is intended to bridge that gap as a source of new ideas about designing and delivering innovative Jewish educational programs across a variety of settings and ages. Its first major initiative is a new study titled “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century”; a draft is currently available online, and the final paper is slated for release in May, as part of a symposium in New York.
Formerly a professor of religious studies at Carleton College, in Minnesota, and Brandeis University, in Massachusetts, Woocher, 60, arrived at Jesna in 1986. The idea for the Lippman Kanfer Institute grew out of a series of conversations Woocher had with Joseph Kanfer, a businessman based in Akron, Ohio, who has used his fortune as the chairman and CEO of the Purell sanitizer empire to fund a variety of Jewish philanthropies. (Kanfer, a past president and lifetime board member of Jesna, is currently chair of the board of trustees of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the Federation system.) The institute is made possible by an open-ended, annual grant of $250,000 from Kanfer’s foundation; two of his daughters, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick and Mamie Kanfer, are part of the foundation team working with Jesna staff to build up the new program.
Founded in 1981 by the Federation system as a nonprofit organization that would help Jewish educational institutions develop best practices and improve existing programs, Jesna has grown rapidly over the past decade, and currently has an annual operating budget of $6 million and a staff of about 30 full- and part-time employees. In addition to its new think tank, Jesna been involved in the creation of a number of innovative programs in recent years, including the New York City-based Bikkurim, which provides financial and technical assistance to fledgling Jewish nonprofits; the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative, which tries to keep qualified teachers in Jewish schools, and DeLeT, a fellowship program based at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Los Angeles, that trains new day-school teachers.
The Lippman Kanfer Institute’s “Redesigning Jewish Education” study is intended to jump-start a discussion among Jewish communal leaders about the future of educational programming. A Web survey has so far been conducted with 700 people about what they feel are the most consequential changes in Jewish life over the past half-century. A 25-member advisory council — made up of lay and professional leaders, including incoming Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Jewish Family & Life founder Yossi Abramowitz and Los Angeles-based Rabbi Sharon Brous — was brought together for a two-day conference last spring, and has since been collaborating on the “Redesigning Jewish Education” working paper, which has been posted online (www.lippmankanferinstitute.wikispaces.com) in draft form to solicit wider input. The openness of the participatory process reflects one of the major recommendations of the emerging working paper — that Jewish learners need to have a significant role in fashioning their educational experiences.
Woocher already has a wish list for future initiatives to improve Jewish education: training Jewish family coaches — people with the pep of personal trainers and the resources of a concierge — who will guide families through educational decisions from a child’s birth to his arrival at college; opening community-wide after-school Hebrew programs for teenagers, and creating online programs of text study for parents and college students.
But more than specific products and projects, it is the conversation that clearly excites Woocher now.
“It’s important to get things up and running, but, at the end of the day, I hope we’re going to be judged by the strength of the ideas,” Woocher said. “So far, we’re really encouraged by interest that the ideas that the institute is putting forward have engendered.”