Rabbi David Wortman, 66, Helmed Board of Rabbis, JCRC


Rabbi David Wortman, former executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis, dies at age 66.

Rabbi David A. Wortman. 66, an authoritative yet gentle voice on Jewish communal issues who served as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia as well as the Board of Rabbis/Jewish Chaplaincy Service during the 1980s and early ’90s, died Nov. 9 in Lexington, Ky.

Originally from Chicago, Wortman arrived in the Philadelphia region in 1982 from a pulpit in Madison, Conn. He quickly became a formidable and respected presence in Philadelphia, serving the Board of Rabbis for five years before becoming executive director of JCRC in 1987, staying until 1993.

After his engagement with JCRC, the Yale grad, who was ordained in 1973 at Hebrew Union College, moved to a pulpit position at Beth Sholom Congregation in Wilmington, Del., segueing to a rabbinic position in Pottstown.

Wortman retired in 2009, joining his wife, Judy, a longtime Jewish communal executive, in Lexington, where she remains as director of the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass. In Lexington, he served as editor of the Federation’s Shalom newsletter until recently.

A dry wit and source of good humor, he served as facilitator for a number of organizations, including the Jewish Exponent in the 1990s, conducting a retreat at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. He also wrote a number of columns for the paper and was acclaimed for authoring The Exodus Haggadah From Tyranny to Freedom.

Wortman served on the steering committee of the Delaware Valley Media Ministry during his time at JCRC. In 1988, he represented the United States at the U.S.-USSR Emerging Leaders Conference, held in Philadelphia.

“David was one of the brightest people I knew, a real scholar,” says Burt Siegel, his longtime friend and himself a former JCRC executive director. Wortman was an eternal student, constantly searching for what it meant to be Jewish, says Siegel.

He shared that passion by teaching, with St. Joseph’s University and his alma mater, Yale, serving as podiums for his teaching tools.

More than anything, says Siegel, “he really cared for the Jewish community.”

And for Israel, where he traveled more than 36 times, notes his wife, the former Judy Bitman. “After his family,” she says, “his greatest love was Israel.”

Indeed, he spent part of his retirement working on education issues and concerns about the elderly in Arad, Israel.

As a family man, he and Judy met in Philadelphia, blending families and visions. “We were joined at the hip,” she says, fused “in the spirit of love we had for each other and what we did for the Jewish community.”

He had a clear vision of the rabbinate, expressing his view as a contributor to the book, American Rabbis: Fact and Fiction: “The rabbinate is a very lonely profession,” he opined. “Rabbis have a hard time making friends. They can’t be friends with congregants because that destroys the rabbi-congregant relationship.

“The reality is that wherever the rabbi goes, the rabbi is always the rabbi.”

Funeral services and burial were held Nov. 11 in the Philadelphia area. Besides his wife, Wortman is survived by a daughter, Dr. Shoshana; a son, Noah; stepchildren, Rabbi Mira Wasserman and Ari Wasserman; a sister, Linda; and six grandchildren.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass (www.jewishlexington.org) or to the Ryan Howard Big Piece Foundation (www.ryanhowardbpf.org). l


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