Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – A Personal Reflection

By Simon Taylor, Regional Director of Outreach, New York NCSY

“In the world of Jewish publishing, if you sell two thousand copies you’re a success, if you sell five thousand you’re a resounding success, and if you sell more than ten thousand, you’re Rabbi Sacks.” Gila Fine, Editor in Chief, Maggid Books.

Growing up as a Modern Orthodox teenager in London, I vividly remember listening to our Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, with immense pride as he would regularly deliver uplifting and inspiring addresses. I remember feeling comforted that we had a Chief Rabbi who was an outstanding ambassador for our faith as well as someone who had the answers to the complexities of Judaism in the modern world. Part of the magic of Rabbi Sacks was that he genuinely loved Judaism, Torah learning, secular academia and people. Above all, he had a very spiritual soul; he loved an energetic oneg with lively singing. While attending a Bnei Akiva Shabbaton in Wales, I remember watching him join in the singing and festivities by standing on his chair together with the local policeman.

It was only after I came to live in the United States that I gained a deeper understanding of Rabbi Sacks’ unparalleled intellect and leadership. He had become an international icon, a best selling author, master orator and renowned philosopher. When traveling abroad, I would receive compliments about Rabbi Sacks as if he were my relative. Even this week, people in the Five Towns whom I’ve never met offered condolences simply because I am a British Jew and therefore must be deeply affected by his loss. Many people like to ask us Brits if we know the Queen. As an English Jew, I can honestly say that the Jews I’ve met around the world were more interested to know if I had met Rabbi Sacks and if I had any insights to share.

In fact, I was blessed to have a personal relationship with Rabbi Sacks as well as the opportunity to work with him for the last few years of his tenure as Chief Rabbi. One of the secrets to his extraordinary success was the first class team he built around him. Rabbi Sacks recognized his own strengths and weaknesses; he knew that in order to make the greatest possible impact, he had to concentrate more on his unique talents. The role I played helps to understand a little known aspect of his global influence. Thousands of people from around the world would write to Rabbi Sacks with questions each year. His was the address for the world to turn if they had a question on faith, Judaism and more. I had the honor to assist Rabbi Sacks with creating full responses to all kinds of people across the globe, from Olympians to politicians, PhD students to high school teens.

Rabbi Sacks did not see himself as a posek. This is hard for Americans to understand but this was not his role as Chief Rabbi nor was being a posek a position that he sought. There is a division of functions in England between the office of the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din, which is known as the Court of the Chief Rabbi. He gave the poskim tremendous respect and supported them by following their psak. I only have one memory of Rabbi Sacks reluctantly but clearly giving a psak when I was attending a Shabbaton in Israel for Yeshiva and seminary students. After Rabbi Sacks had delivered several uplifting addresses, Shabbat ended and we all gathered for a lively havdala. During the havdala ceremony, half the crowd began to “nai nai” in the middle of the brachot while others tried to shush them. The shushers had been taught or had decided that the “nai nais” were a hefsek (break) in the brachot. I was standing right next to Rabbi Sacks when someone asked him if the “nai nais” were considered to be a hefsek and he responded that they were not. He answered that this is something we have a precedent for during Bircat Cohanim and the “nai nais” are there in order to enhance the bracha. Knowing Rabbi Sacks, it is entirely possible that he gave this answer off the top of his head in order not to embarrass the person who led the havdala.

Rabbi Sacks was always a mensch and would constantly consider the feelings of those around him. His menschlichkeit began at home; he always had his wife Elaine by his side and would credit her in all his speeches. He structured his entire life to make time for everything that was important to him, starting with his family. Each summer, he would take two months off from his duties as Chief Rabbi to work on his books. He also made time to be there for the community and individuals in times of need and simcha. When he heard that my brother, sister and I were engaged at the same time, he extended an invitation to our family to join him at his home for a celebratory tea. We shared a memorable evening at his home and I recall how much effort went in to share in our simcha.

My late grandmother, Judge Myrella Cohen QC, was a well known Family Court and Criminal Judge in England and fought tirelessly together with Rabbi Sacks to enable legislation to be passed to support agunot. Rabbi Sacks, who cared deeply about the plight of agunot, was ecstatic when the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 was passed after a ten year long campaign. Just two months later, he gave a hesped at my grandmother’s levaya and 18 years to the day, they share the same yahrtzeit, 20 Cheshvan.

Rabbi Sacks would never speak badly about others despite occasionally coming under public criticism. On one occasion, my brother Saul felt that Rabbi Sacks had been unfairly written about in the Jerusalem Post and wrote in a response that was published the following week. In the middle of a work day, Rabbi Sacks called Saul at his work in a bank to thank him for writing in his defense. During the call, many of Saul’s non-Jewish colleagues clamored to hear the voice of the renowned religious leader. Rabbi Sacks always chose the path of peace and would never rise to the bait when provoked.

He surrounded himself with a talented team whom he trusted to manage his calendar. If I wanted to book Rabbi Sacks for an event, a meeting or even to receive a personalized greeting, I knew I needed to contact his staff. They were incredible gate keepers who enabled him to maximize his time and strengths.

With all the fame, accolades and prestigious awards he received, Rabbi Sacks remained humble. After a year in the States, I decided to invite Rabbi Sacks to deliver the keynote address at the NCSY staff conference in 2015. For me, there was one stand out line in his speech – “I write books, YOU change lives.” Although he knew the power of his books, he also understood that you need educators on the ground to nurture real change. One of Rabbi Sacks’ biggest achievements, which he would proudly constantly share, was the percentage of Jewish students attending Jewish schools in England. Building on the work of his predecessor Lord Jacobovitz, the numbers grew to in excess of 70% during his tenure as Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks shouldered the huge responsibility of the entire Jewish people and in particular, the crisis of rising assimilation. He dedicated a lot of his time to inspiring teens, college students, Rabbis and outreach workers about their responsibilities to their fellow Jews. He himself was inspired as a teen by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and always felt he needed to do more to bring back unaffiliated Jews. At the NCSY staff conference, a philanthropist asked, “Why don’t more philanthropists support outreach, what can we do to change their minds?” Rabbi Sacks looked to the ground in contemplation for a few moments. He then looked up and answered, “You find the philanthropist and I’ll come with you to convince them!” He truly felt that it was his responsibility to reach every Jew and if he had any possible means of achieving this through his writings, radio broadcasts, talks or even by soliciting funds, he felt that he had to do it.

Rabbi Sacks made time for people and respected everyone of all religions and races, from the highest in the land to the humblest. He was a personal friend of Prince Charles, who spoke so warmly at Rabbi Sacks’ retirement dinner. He was also personal friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the UK Catholic Church. As a member of the House of Lords, the British upper chamber in the legislature, he was a steadfast and reliable voice on humanity, issues of morality, antisemitism and the defense of Israel. However, at the same time, he ensured that he was accessible to those who did not hold such high office. My father had the honor of being a member of Rabbi Sacks’ executive committee for a number of years and he recalls being with Rabbi Sacks when he would carry out his regular walkabouts to meet the backroom staff of his office. On one occasion, on the day before Rosh Hashana, he decided to visit the backroom staff of his finance department. Sitting at his desk was a young black man who had only recently started at the office. Rabbi Sacks asked him his name, and the young man replied that it was Lincoln. Rabbi Sacks complimented the young man on his wonderful name; young Lincoln stood tall and proud when Lord Sacks excitedly told him how honored he was to meet a young man on his staff whose name was linked to the Gettysburg Address. In his discussion with Lincoln, Lord Sacks observed that the Gettysburg Address was very short but its message was eternal.

As we remember Lord Sacks, we stand in awe of the eternal impact of his message to Jewry and the world.

May his memory be for a blessing.