From London To Manhattan – Remembering Rabbi Sacks

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Joe Wolfson


A day in early summer of 2015. Katamon, Jerusalem. My phone rings. Joanna Benarroch – head of the Office of Rabbi Sacks.

“Joe? Hi! How are you? I hear you’ve been talking with JLIC, Rabbi Sarna, and the Bronfman Center. I just spoke to Rabbi Sacks this morning. He says that you have to take it! We’ve been spending time there since 2013. It’s an amazing place.”

And that was that. If people as English as Lord and Lady Sacks could feel so enthused about Jewish life in downtown Manhattan, then so could Corinne and I – loyal subjects of her majesty that we were.

In the weeks since Rabbi Sacks’ passing we have realized how lucky we were to know Rabbi Sacks in two different stages of our lives and his. We grew up in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s during the prime years of his Chief Rabbinate, appreciating him there as he led the anglo Jewish community and achieved national prominence. We were also uniquely privileged to work closely with him from 2015 to 2019 during his tenure as the Ira Rennert Distinguished Professor at NYU, where the Bronfman Center became the launch pad for his profound impact upon American Jewry. In the lines that follow I share some reflections about these two stages of his life, what they meant to me, and what I think they meant to him.

London – Malkhut

It was the language and the power of his oratory more than anything else that made an impression on me as a child. He could hold spellbound two thousand people on a Bnei Akiva Shabbaton without the help of any microphones, his voice filling the room. And he found a completely different cadence in his regular appearances on the country’s most widely listened to morning radio show. He had a power with words that was unmatched.

He took the relationship between Judaism and the English language to a new level. One year at the Bnei Akiva Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, which he would always address together with a prominent politician, his theme was the innate Jewish spirituality of secular Israelis. He furnished his argument with numerous anecdotes and concluded with the sentence:

The only people in the world who believe that secular Israelis are secular Israelis are secular Israelis.

Whether one agreed with the insight about secular Israel or not, one could only marvel at the ability to construct such a sentence.

The language served a higher purpose too. It helped create a sense of that rarest of qualities – malkhut. Malkhut – a sense of regal dignity, royalty – is central to Jewish thought. God is of course referred to as King. Perhaps the most widespread form of midrashic parable is stories of kings and their subjects. But in our modern world, where monarchy has ceased to be an organizing principle of Western societies, flesh and blood examples of malkhut are few and far between. Yet Rabbi Sacks had it. It was present in the stories he told of meeting the Pope or havrutot with Prince Charles. It was present in the unique halo effect he possessed to be able to pack a shiur or a lecture like no one else. And the sound of his voice and use of words facilitated it. Growing up in London, we all had tremendous pride that a member of our little community was the most sought after and respected religious figure in the country. He was not just a Lord but a melekh.

And yet the nature of malkhut is one of distance. Certainly, he was available to the special people who sought him out. But to the average Jew in the pew he was not accessible. We heard him on the radio and packed auditoriums to listen to him speak, but there was no sense of intimacy and personal connection. How could there be? If he had been among the people, one of the lads, he wouldn’t have been the king.

Manhattan – Accessibility and Well-Being 

In New York the halo effect was still there, in some ways redoubled. Americans would go weak at his accent as he played up his Englishness – a real-life Jewish version of Downton Abbey and The Crown which they found so fascinating. The malkhut was there in humorous ways too. He was once asked to re-record a TED talk after the first take. Why? Had something been wrong in his presentation? No… it was just, explained the CEO, that TED’s dress code was one of informality, and would Rabbi Sacks mind removing his tie?

And yet the barriers came down and the king became deeply approachable and accessible.

The time that he would spend with us at NYU was certainly full of opportunities that showcased his unique skills. Events at the 92nd Street Y with public intellectuals. Day trips to Washington to present at important think tanks. Brown bag lunch discussions with university faculty and Shabbatot with hundreds of students and parents.

Yet amongst all this he would dedicate a full day each semester, from 9AM to 4PM, with hours divided into intervals of twenty minutes, to meet with individual students. There was no message that I would send to the community that would generate a quicker and larger response than the semesterly email with the subject line of “Sign Up For Your 20 Minutes With Rabbi Sacks.” Syrian students from Flatbush, Reform student leaders, the newly religious, the formerly religious, students from the mainstream of the Modern Orthodox community – a greater range than at any other occasion – would all rush to reserve a slot.

Two Chobani yogurts were all that he would ask me to bring him to get him through the 15 individual meetings with students in the first half of the day. At lunch time we would take a walk through Washington Square Park and when I would ask if he was doing ok, he would respond that this is the best day of his trip – that there is nothing more precious for him than hearing from individual students. I had provided a line or two of background for each student in advance, and any issue that a student brought up that he felt required my attention would be raised with delicacy and care.

I don’t know that our students understood that the accessibility they had to Rabbi Sacks was not something that most Jews from the UK would recognize. But in the weeks since his passing numerous students have reached out to me reflecting on how privileged they felt to have had the time they did with Rabbi Sacks.

This greater access that he and his team gave to others in his later years may also have been reflective of and contributed to a deeper shift between his years as Chief Rabbi and those that came after. In America he appeared to me to be happier, more visibly relaxed, letting his guard down more, more humorous and even at times silly.

Being Chief Rabbi was not without its serious stresses. Amidst the astonishing outpouring of emotion at the loss of such a global giant, it’s sometimes hard to recall – and many who became fans of Rabbi Sacks in his later years are completely unaware – how many tumultuous moments there had been during his tenure as Chief Rabbi. Critiqued by the non-Orthodox denominations for not attending the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn or the pluralist Limmud festival, blasted by the Haredi world for the claim in Dignity Of Difference that other religions were the correct ones for their adherents, it often felt that he was being attacked from all sides. Although an amazingly articulate defender of Israel, he was pilloried for an interview to The Guardian in 2002 in which he described being ‘uncomfortable as a Jew’ with certain Israeli policies. At multiple points throughout his Chief Rabbinate there were calls for him to step down. This was a tough job to feel relaxed in.

The first time I saw him in Manhattan was in September 2015 at a meeting of the Downtown Va’ad – a group of rabbinic colleagues serving communities in the neighborhood. The location? A sports bar on Third Avenue with pounding music, dozens of screens, and free-flowing alcohol (the Israeli owner had recently agreed to stock only kosher wines). To all appearances he was having a great time.

This was the sakhar ba-olam ha-zeh – the reward in this world that he deserved. In America he was able to teach and preach to an enormously wide audience and to be appreciated for it without the political baggage of being a Chief Rabbi. Perhaps it was in this period that he ceased to be an Orthodox leader and came to see himself as a Jewish leader, sought after by communities and individuals across the spectrum. In such a congenial climate, appearing in a raucous student-run Purim spiel was an opportunity he was game for. Sports Bars and Purim spiels – these things did not happen in England. Amidst the deep sadness at his untimely loss, it gives me some comfort to think that in his final years we were able to help him enjoy the pleasure of being the world’s most sought after teacher of Torah without the attendant stress of being British Chief Rabbi.

 A Final Thought

The story that Rabbi Sacks perhaps told more often than any other was of his journey to America while a Cambridge undergraduate in order to meet Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and of the profound impact they had upon his decision to become a rabbi.

The week of Rabbi Sacks’ shiva was Parshat Hayyei Sarah. A well-known midrash relates that when Sarah died the light went out in the tent.

This month, a great light has gone out in the Jewish world.

Yet the midrash goes on to relate that when Rivka joined the family the light returned to the tent.

The story of meeting Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe will never again be told by the person to whom the story happened.

But there will be other stories told years from now by people who will go on to be dazzling lights within the Jewish world. And they will tell of how when they were young, at a crossroads in their life, they met with the great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, opened up their hearts to him, and shared with him their quandaries. And that the precious time they had with him helped them take the next crucial steps on their journey.

Thus is the way of the Torah. Amidst the most difficult and unexpected of circumstances she survives and is beloved. She flourishes in the hands and minds of those great individuals who can uncover her secrets, reveal her beauty, and pass her on to a future generation, who themselves will discover yet more brilliance within and pass her on as an inheritance once again to those who are yet to come.

Joe Wolfson is the OU-JLIC Rabbi at New York University's Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. He studied with Rav Amital at Yeshivat Har Etzion and was named one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36 this year for his Covid response work.