May 16, 2024
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Remembering Rabbi Sacks, zt”l, on His First Yahrzeit

It was an interview I will never forget. I was doing research for my MA thesis about Jewish education, and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was chief rabbi then, kindly agreed to speak with me.

My thesis was about the impact that Jewish day schools had on religious and spiritual development. After asking a few questions, Rabbi Sacks said, “Your questions are interesting, but I want to share with you my own thoughts.” Rabbi Sacks went on to talk to me about how the key to successful education is nurturing and maintaining positive relationships.

I distinctly remember Rabbi Sacks saying: “Education is about relationships. Yes, we teach texts, laws and history. But we will only make a difference to the lives of our young people if we are connecting with them. What we teach our students is the means. The end is developing relationships with them; hopefully then we stand a chance of making an impact and imparting our values and ideas.”

Rabbi Sacks passed away at the age of 72, far too young, after a short illness. His death was a tragedy in that he has so much more to give to the Jewish and non-Jewish world—so much more of his Torah and philosophy to share. His first yahrzeit was on October 25/26, Cheshvan 20.

Like Rabbis Y.B Soloveichik and Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Sacks was a master of both secular and Jewish thought and synthesized both in his writings, drashot and speeches. Like Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Sacks was a community builder, who had to deal with the challenges of modernity and non-Orthodox movements.

In an interview, Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum, the dean of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS, formerly Jews’ College) in the UK, spoke about Rabbi Sacks and his legacy.

Rabbi Zarum related the following episodes, showing how sensitive and thoughtful Rabbi Sacks was.

A major donor to the LSJS passed away and Rabbi Sacks attended the stone setting. Many rabbis came from Israel and all around the world. The family were not religious and didn’t understand Hebrew and felt alienated. Rabbi Sacks read Psalms in English and spoke beautifully about the deceased person.

The rabbis couldn’t believe he read the Psalms in English. But Rabbi Sacks knew that was the right thing to do and he didn’t care what the rabbis thought. The family were all moved to tears. That shows the uniqueness of Rabbi Sacks—he understood people and knew what to do in every situation. He wasn’t interested in his own personal kavod, but rather in helping people.

Another story Rabbi Zarum related was when he received a call from Rabbi Sacks, 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Rabbi Sacks called him to say that his mother had enjoyed listening to a talk of his over Shabbat. This was the chief rabbi taking time out to call him! Rabbi Zarum said, “If Rabbi Sacks had called me, just think how many times he did this type of thing to other people too, encouraging them and moving them forward.”

Rabbi Sacks was a master orator and loved sharing his ideas. His aim was to reach the most modern Jew and be their rabbi. The Judaism he represented spoke to our modern times and grappled with our challenges and issues. He didn’t want to be a guru type religious leader, but rather wanted people to find their own path in Judaism, reaching their own conclusion. He wanted to create leaders, not blind followers.

“Rabbi Sacks empowered us and continually reinforced his belief in us. He made Judaism cool—he made thinking about Judaism trendy. He made us ask ourselves, what does Judaism have to say about the universe and life. He made ideas important again,” said Zarum.

Rabbi Zarum described Rabbi Sacks as the rabbis’ rabbi.

“Rabbi Sacks influenced me as a leader more than anything else. We discussed how to run the LSJS—we met every month for six or seven years, being the dean of the LSJS. I modeled myself as a leader on what he taught me. He always said, when you go into a community, make sure you do your research and have one-liners to use.

“Know who to praise, Rabbi Sacks always said—the rabbi and community leaders. He made sure to name people when he addressed audiences to make everyone feel valued and that he was connected to them,” Zarum said.

Zarum continues, “I remember Rabbi Sacks telling me, ‘The job of a rabbi is to oil the community—to keep people together, to bridge differences and to stand in when something isn’t working.’”

“When I had personal leadership challenges, I always turned to Rabbi Sacks. When I wasn’t sure how to handle a situation, I called Rabbi Sacks. He always inspired me with ideas and gave me chizuk. He taught me that despite all the challenges of being a leader, you must learn from the past, pick yourself up and move onward—and never, ever give up,” says Zarum.

Finally, Rabbi Zarum says, “Rabbi Sacks was a community builder. He brought the LSJS to life again. When LSJS was struggling, in early 2005, Rabbi Sacks met with Marc Weinberg and they discussed together how they would rebuild the LSJS. After that meeting, Rabbi Sacks was convinced the LSJS could be saved. Rabbi Sacks always backed us and told us to go for it. Always encouraging—empowering and encouraging.”

“I’ll never forget the buzz in the room before his pre-Rosh Hashanah lecture at the LSJS. What was he going to say? He has the ability to make ideas important again. Which other speaker could create such a buzz on a mid-week evening?” concludes Zarum.

The passing of Rabbi Sacks has left a terrible void that we are all feeling. When Rabbi Sacks spoke out, we stood up proud and the world listened. We now need to take his teaching and ideas and pass them on to those around us and the next generation. By doing so, we will do exactly what he wanted—to live as inspired and engaged Jews.

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