Meet the Right Honorable Lord Sacks
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Meet the Right Honorable Lord Sacks

Former chief rabbi of Great Britain is scholar in residence in Englewood

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Rabbi Sacks, in Israel, speaks at the launch of “Radical Responsiblity,” a book discussing his contributions to Jewish philosophy.

In a way, it’s almost like a science fiction experiment in alternate realities.

The British Jewish world is in some ways like ours, and in other ways deeply, structurally, perhaps even radically different. There is much for us to learn in both the similarities and the differences.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth of Great Britain, who will be scholar in residence at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood next Shabbat, embodies both the familiarity and the otherness. On the one hand, there is his name and title ““ Rabbi Sacks is also the Right Honourable Lord Sacks, and can properly be called Baron Sacks as well.

On the other, deeply familiar hand, he is an Orthodox Jew, the son and grandson of immigrants; his history and religious practice are not foreign at all to us.

As he explained in a phone conversation, the Jewish community in the U.K. is far smaller than its U.S. counterpart – “We are just under 300,000,” he said, centered mostly in London and Manchester in England, with very small communities in Wales and Ireland, and a slightly larger one in Scotland. British Jews also are “a little more traditional than the American Jewish community, so that around 70 percent are members of Orthodox synagogues.” (Rabbi Sack’s organization, the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, represents most but not all Orthodox non-charedi shuls.) About another 10 percent or so are members of non-Orthodox shuls, he said. “That doesn’t make the British community more religious – just more traditional – but it does mean that Orthodoxy has a strong voice in Britain.”

Not only does the majority of the community have a chief rabbi, “in Britain, we have two different kinds of leadership,” Rabbi Sacks said. “There is the board of deputies and the chief rabbi. That means that there is a kind of division of labor that doesn’t happen in the United States. The board defends Jewish interests, and the chief rabbi articulates Jewish principles. That allows me to exercise much more of a teaching role, and to be a voice in the public square.

“I do a lot of broadcasting and public media,” he said.

The reason that the office of the chief rabbinate exists in Britain is “because we are constituted as a religious community rather than an ethnic one,” he said. And every Jew is counted as part of that community, not only the Orthodox Jews who are members of United Synagogue-affiliated shuls.

“We worked out ways of doing this,” Rabbi Sacks said. “I had to formulate principles, because as the community changes you have to make sure that everyone knows who represents what, and so on.

“I formulated basic principles that help to finesse problems on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of our religious differences. We agree to differ on those differences, but there are those issues where we work together across denominations ““ issues such as anti-Semitism, interfaith, welfare, and defense of Israel. On those matters, we work together across the board.”

Although “the part of the community I am closest to is modern Orthodoxy, I try to call it inclusive Orthodoxy,” Rabbi Sacks said. “We are much broader in our reach than American Orthodoxy. There are a lot of less religiously inclined people. The shul that people go to once or twice a year is Orthodox. Some people think of that as hypocrisy, but I think of it as loyalty.”

As most of the Jewish world knows by now, a study the Pew Research Center released a few months ago seemed to contain dire news about the American Jewish community’s future, were trends not reversed soon. The study was old news for Rabbi Sacks, though, and there is much that we can learn from his efforts, he suggested.

“We faced these problems” – intermarriage, lack of connection, dwindling rates of affiliation – “when I first became chief rabbi, in 1991,” he said. “That was when the 1990 national Jewish population study was published in the States. I studied that report- and really the Pew report is that first report, 20 years on – and it was clear to me that the issues that American Jewry was facing we would face too, if not immediately then quite soon.

“So we acted on that.

“We had a huge advantage in that we were small enough a community to be able to generate a series of plans across the community to transform it, and to meet the challenges head on.

“The first thing we did was analyze the data. I spent three years studying every study that exists on the maintenance of minority group identities everywhere in the world. It was clear to us that education is the key.

“Historically, wherever Jewish education was strong, Jewish identity was strong.

“So we decided that we were going to increase the number of Jewish children studying in day schools in an unprecedented way. When we began, 25 percent of Jewish children were studying at day schools. Now, 20 years on, 70 percent are. We built more Jewish day schools in 20 years than in the previous three centuries plus of Anglo-Jewish history.”

Not only are the differences in numbers striking, but so is the source of funding. “The schools are state supported,” Rabbi Sacks said. That doesn’t mean that the support was automatic. “We had to make two very strong cases. We had to persuade Jewish parents to want to send their children -and we had to overcome a longstanding reluctance on their part to do so – and we had to persuade the government to support it. Finally, we managed both.

“Now, for the first time, we have a generation of young Jews who are more Jewishly knowledgeable and committed than their parents.”

Another difference is summer camps, which have been instrumental in retaining generations of American Jewish children. “We are not a summer camp sort of community,” Rabbi Sacks said. “We tend to send our kids to Israel in the summer, probably because we are so much closer.” (He was talking geography; the flight is only about five hours.)

Intermarriage, too, is an issue. “We can’t estimate it, but we know that just as it is in America, it is highly stratified, depending on the degree of religious observance. The more there is in the home, the less likely children are to marry out.

“We know that intermarriage is the single most critical factor, and we also know that the Archimedean point, the point from which we can move the world, is school.

“When children come back from school and start teaching their parents, that’s when their parents start being more religious. We couldn’t tell them directly to be more religious, but we can say that you should send your children to day school.

“The schools also teach strong ethics. We teach our kids to be good, responsible citizens, who care for others. These are good chesed-based schools, and the fact that our kids come out of them strongly committed to the common good and to helping others is a reason why the government looks so favorably on them.

“The schools are superb in their secular achievements as well. That’s why parents want to send their kids there.

“That is the dynamic that is shaping up in Britain.”

There were 450,000 Jews in the U.K. after World War II; that number fell to 300,000 by 2005. “We did our arithmetic,” Rabbi Sacks said. “We knew that more Jews were dying than were being born. It was that simple. We were losing Jews.”

Proactive work took care of that as well.

“We arrested the demographic decline,” Rabbi Sacks continued. “Anglo-Jewry had declined year after year between 1945 and 2005, but since 2005 it has been growing year after year. And that growth is indigenous, without immigration.”

England is a very old country, but the Jewish community as it is now is about as old as ours. There are glimpses of Jewish presence there that can be traced back to soon after the Norman Conquest, but the traces are rare; most of the time Jews are found in English history between then and the English Revolution, it is as the victims of pogroms. Oliver Cromwell let a few Jews trickle in, and by the Victorian era ““ around when Jews started landing in noticeable numbers in the United States – the community was visible, if not thriving. (Benjamin Disraeli – Benjamin of Israel!! – a brilliant man gifted with what was considered to be a Jewish brain and burdened by what was labeled as a Jewish nose – was prime minister, but as a child he had been received by the Anglican church. That might have been a fig-leaf conversion, but it was necessary nonetheless. So – glass half full or half empty?)

“There were only 20,000 Jewish families in 1880,” Rabbi Sacks said. “There are relatively few really old Anglo-Jewish families.”

The practical result of this history is that the roots of the British Jewish community are similar to ours. Rabbi Sack’s own story is familiar, at least in part.

“My father’s family came from Poland,” he said. “My late father was an immigrant; they first came in the early 20th century. My late mother was born in Britain, but her parents came from Israel.

“My great grandfather, Aryeh Leib Frumkin, who was an Orthodox rabbi in Lithuania, was one of the early Zionists. He built the first school and house in Petach Tikvah. He made aliyah in 1871. But there was an attack on the village in 1894, and he decided that it wasn’t safe to raise a family there, so he came over in 1894 and began a wine business, importing from Israel.

“The business was called Frumkin’s, and it was a sort of center of Jewish life in the East End,” Rabbi Sacks continued. (London’s East End was the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side, the place where new immigrants lived until they made enough money and assimilated enough local manners to move on up.)

“My earliest memories of my grandmother were of a balabuste. She sort of ran the whole East End, selling wine. It was the place where new immigrants came, the point of arrival.”

Did Rabbi Sacks’ grandmother have a first name? “Yes,” he said, “but I knew her as bubbe, and everyone else knew her as Mrs. Frumkin.”

“My grandfather sat in the shop, studying Talmud; she ran the shop, and she ran the neighborhood. She was illiterate. She was one of the great forceful characters of the East End. Everyone knew Mrs. Frumkin.”

“My father, Louis, sold shmattes in the East End. He was one of the generation that never had a chance to get an education. He had to leave school at 14 to support the family.”

Louis and his wife, Libby, had four boys; Jonathan was born in 1948. “We had the kind of education they didn’t have,” Rabbi Sacks said.

Now that he has retired as chief rabbi, Rabbi Sacks is relishing the freedom to expand his reach. “I will be teaching at Yeshiva University and New York University, and at Kings College in Britain,” he said. “I will be traveling the world to encourage leadership in the next generation of Jews, to get young people to really become leaders in the Jewish world. I will be engaging in virtually every leadership program in the Jewish world, and I am particularly looking forward to developing a relationship with Hillel in America.”

One of his first stops in the United States will be the weekend at Ahavath Torah, and its president, Lee Lasher of Englewood, is thrilled.

“In terms of inspirational leadership, rabbinic or otherwise, Rabbi Sacks is one of the leaders in the Jewish world today,” he said. “This is an honor and a privilege.

“On a personal level, I am aligned with so many of Rabbi Sacks’ values,” Mr. Lasher continued. “I was at the GA” – the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which met in Israel in November – “when Rabbi Sacks spoke. It was astounding. It was a standing-room audience, and people literally walked out of it saying that it was the best talk they had heard.

“He talked about how his Judaism engaged with the world. He said that there had been two models of Judaism reacting to crisis. One response was ‘I’m giving up.’ Total assimilation. The other is the charedi approach, total isolation. He said that we don’t need that anymore. We should be engaged with the world, proud of our Judaism.

“He told a story about how the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the Parliament, and they came to him a few years into his term as chief rabbi and asked him if he would do it.

“He said it was unbelievable; people were talking about it, non-Jewish people. It was such a Kiddush HaShem” – a glorification of God’s name. “He is able to articulate Jewish values in such a beautiful way.

“He talked about the servant leader, the kind of Jewish leader that Moses exemplifies. That’s Rabbi Sacks. It’s the exact opposite of Chris Christie.

“At the GA, he gave a handout, and it said, ‘Judaism does not mean living in the past. It means living with the past, but with eyes firmly turned toward the future.'”

Although “I had been trying for months to bring Rabbi Sacks,” with a lot of back and forth with the youth rabbi at East Hills Synagogue in Englewood, whose brother works with Rabbi Sacks, “Yeshiva University heard that I was interested, and Stu Halpern, who lives in the community and works at YU, came to us and said, ‘We can make this happen, and we would love to.’

“Rabbi Sacks is going to speak at only a few communities a year, and we are so excited to have him speak to us.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who leads Ahavat Torah and is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said, “It is a privilege and an honor for us to be able to host Rabbi Sacks. He is a scholar par excellence, who is firmly rooted in the real world and whose philosophical contributions are not esoteric but practical and real, and address people’s lives in a very concrete way.

“This has allowed him to make an immeasurable contribution to the Jewish community at large. There are few people who have the extraordinary reach that he has, and the ability to relate to people from different backgrounds and religious perspectives.”

Like Mr. Lasher, Rabbi Goldin thanked YU “for providing us with this opportunity.

“It demonstrates what a wonderful contribution Rabbi Sacks can make now that he has taken on a role within that esteemed institution,” he said.

Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks
Who: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth of Great Britain

What: Will be rabbi in residence

Where: At Congregation Ahavath Torah, 240 Broad Ave., Englewood

When: January 31-February 1

Shabbat schedule:

January 31, dessert reception and lecture, “The 3 Greatest Challenges Facing the Orthodox Community Today, and Their Solutions,” 8:30 p.m.

February 1, sermon, “Building a Home for God,” 11:30 a.m.; talk and seudah shelisheet, “Torah and Contemporary Politics, A Case Study,” 4:45 p.m.

For more information: www.ahavathtorah.org

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