Within hours of the sudden death on January 31 of Cheryl Aronson, social media was flooded with posts from around the world expressing shock and sorrow, and extolling a monumental figure in Boston’s Jewish community.
Aronson, 58, had worked in a number of executive capacities for Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies for 30 years. She “was one of the finest, most dedicated and smartest Jewish communal professionals I have ever known,” Nancy Kaufman, former chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women and former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston posted on Facebook.
She added in an interview: “She was an unsung hero. It’s incredible the number of people she touched all over the world.”
Aronson, described by many as a visionary passionately committed to a strong Jewish future and to Israel, is credited with shepherding many of CJP’s signature programs with national impact, implementing life-changing Jewish experiences for people young and old.
A Brookline resident, Aronson is presumed to have had a heart attack, according to her mother Esther Aronson of Lexington with whom she was staying.
She received numerous awards for her leadership and commitment to Jewish education. One of her portfolios was the IACT initiative, a follow-up program to the Birthright Israel which sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage. IACT was designed to welcome them home to Jewish life on campus and keep them engaged in Israel and Judaism.
“She took IACT to 27 different campuses around the country. She wouldn’t stop!” said Barry Shrage, who headed CJP for three decades, until 2018.
“Can you imagine the amount of talent it took to start it from scratch?” he said in an interview. “She did the training, the recruiting, made deals with Hillels. She had extreme competence, a huge vision about the importance of Jewish life. She was filled with passion for the Jewish people. And Israel was her happy place.”
Aronson stewarded The Boston-Haifa Connection, a partnership to forge strong relationships between the two cities, to foster Jewish identity, and connect youth with one another through an exchange program.
In Israel, she launched Parents at the Center, an innovative prevention program she was especially proud of, colleagues say, to help parents of at-risk youth in seven Israeli cities.
Another project was the Israel Campus Roundtable, a forum connecting thousands of New England university students who have an interest in Israel with resources and support for programming. She accompanied numerous young adults on their first trip to Israel. She developed adult education programs and initiatives for retirees.
Aronson “was a real people person,” wrote Gil Troy in a tribute he posted on his website; he is a professor of history at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, and chairs a Birthright committee that Aronson served on. “She was the kind who befriended you so instantly, made such fast friends, you felt like you had known her all your life,” wrote Troy. “It wasn’t just her ready smile in person; it was her constant love-o-grams via email and her like-a-grams on Facebook.”
Known as “Tzippi” to friends and students she mentored – which included countless individuals in the U.S. and Israel – Troy wrote that Aronson said her goal was for her students to smile when they hear the words “Israel” and “Jewish people.”
He quoted from an email she once sent him: “Let’s give young adults the chance and proactive exposure to figure out why any of this matters to them instead of being hijacked by identity politics in the name of bringing authentic education that brings complexity. It seems the true complexity today is creating a space to celebrate being a Jew.”
She was truly a warrior for the cause,” said Arinne Braverman, a former colleague and executive director of Returning the Sparks, which works to transform Jews’ connection to Judaism and Israel. “For her it was all about connection.”
Aronson was born in Mattapan; her family was one of the last Jewish families to leave that neighborhood. She grew up in Lexington where she attended public schools, and received her Jewish education at Prozdor at Hebrew College in Brookline and Camp Yavneh, and through numerous trips to Israel. “She spoke Hebrew fluently with an Israeli accent,” her mother, Esther, said.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Clark University where she studied psychology, then earned a master’s degree in Social Work at Columbia University, credentials she put to use as a formative mentor for many people, both in their careers and personally. One of them is Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York, and the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, who wrote on Facebook: “A great light has departed this plane of existence.”
Aronson also earned a master’s degree in Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Her first job was at CJP where she spent three decades before moving to Hillel International as the Vice President, Israel Engagement in 2020.
“She was an incredible daughter,” said Esther. “The only fault she had was she worked too hard for the Jewish organizations.” In addition to her mother, she leaves her sister, Diane, in Lexington.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.