Rabbi Bernard Ducoff, champion of BJE, dies at 83

Rabbi Bernard Ducoff’s vision to engage every facet of the community in Jewish education knew no boundaries.

As executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco from 1956 to 1978, Ducoff grew the institution by reaching out to educators, community members of varied ages and synagogues — all streams of Judaism included.

“He created this relationship with all the congregations,” said Helen Ducoff, Bernard’s wife of 61 years. “It really was a unique approach. No congregation was standing alone. They all had help from the bureau.”  

Known by many for his intellectual curiosity and scholarly pursuits, Ducoff died of leukemia on Aug. 29 in West Orange, N.J., where he resided for more than 30 years. He was 83. 

At the core of Ducoff’s rabbinic calling and professional career was his dedication to quality Jewish education for all. It was under his tenure that the Jewish Education Society changed its name in 1958 to the BJE of San Francisco, Marin County and the Peninsula, reflecting its expanded purpose.  

“He really had a commitment to increasing the currency of Judaism through Jewish education,” said Miriam Smolen, Ducoff’s daughter. “He felt that through Jewish education, the entire community — children, adults, seniors and the mentally disabled — could embrace not just the knowledge but the culture and history of being Jewish.”

Together with Helen, who also worked in Jewish education, Ducoff helped set teacher and curriculum standards for all 14 congregational schools in the region.

The BJE also ran the College of Jewish Studies from 1958 to 1978; collaborated with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council on a civics class for public high schools; and instituted the Summer in Israel confirmation program in 1973.

Developed a year earlier by Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the program expanded under Ducoff’s guidance to send more than 100 confirmation-age students from all over Northern California to Israel each year for six weeks.

“Bernie expanded hospitalities to students in Sacramento,” Helen recalled. “It was really wonderful. We both felt very good getting so many 16-year-olds to Israel at that time.”

Today the BJE in San Francisco serves 10,000 students, 800 educators, 55 schools and thousands of families, according to its website.

From 1978 until his retirement in 1994, Ducoff led the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest New Jersery, where he strengthened its core learning centers while creating new ones during his tenure.

“He was confident that living a Jewish life was important and significant,” Helen said, “and shared that with others.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ducoff attended Yeshiva University, received his rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953 and earned a Ph.D. in historical studies in 1979 through the joint doctoral program of the Graduate Theological Union and U.C. Berkeley.

He served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force before moving to San Francisco for 23 years. Ducoff’s two children, Smolen and Daniel Ducoff, attended U.C. Berkeley.

Ducoff was a well-known lecturer as a scholar-in-residence for congregations, community forums and colleges such as St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., and Midrasha Institute for Jewish Studies in New Jersey.

Written accomplishments include articles in Jewish journals, such as the Journal of Jewish Education, for which he also served in the role as editor for five years.

Before Ducoff would present a lecture, “he tried to look at all the material that existed, synthesize it and come up with a different perspective,” Smolen said. “He gave his audience something to really think about. He always said, if you grasp their curiosity, you involve them.” 

Ducoff is survived by his wife, Helen, son Daniel Ducoff, daughter Miriam Smolen and five grandsons. Memorial contributions may be made to Tsad Kadima, an Israeli organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of children and young adults with cerebral palsy and motor dysfunctions, at www.tsadkadima.org.il.