Rabbi Sacks: Day schools saved British Jewry

At Presidents Conference, European Jews speak of hopes and fears for their communities’ futures.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
June 23, 2011 03:08
3 minute read.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

rabbi sacks UK 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks isn’t a man who easily lends himself to exaggeration, but in the war on assimilation, he said the ends justify the means.

Speaking at a panel on the future of European Jewry at the Presidents Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Sacks recalled how in 1993 he knowingly created an artificial sense of crisis to try and put an end to four decades of decline in the population of British Jews.

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“We were losing Jews at an alarming rate,” he said. “If we did nothing, the community would die. The solution was clear to us: We had to rejuvenate the Jewish community, and we learned from history that education was the most powerful tool.”

To reach out to parents of Jewish children in Britain, he signed his name to a controversial ad campaign aimed at stirring up a public debate.

“In 1993 we took out a big advertisement of lovely young Jews, the kind you’d all want your children to be, and one by one they were falling into the abyss,” he said. “The headline read: Britain has been losing Jews every day for 40 years.”

The campaign worked.

Sacks said that in 2005, about 63 percent of Jewish children studied at Jewish day schools, as opposed to 25% in 1993. That, in turn, has created a spurt of growth in Jewish activism in art and film festivals and education conferences, and the establishment of community centers and museums.



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Addressing representatives of other European Jewish communities at the panel, the rabbi proudly reported that the British community is growing again.

The postwar experience of French Jewry is the near opposite of their brethren across the channel, said Richard Prasquier of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF.

Instead of going into decline, their numbers were bolstered by immigrants from North Africa, raising the Jewish population from 300,000 before World War II to to 600,000 today.

“I could not agree more that education is a major issue,” Prasquier told Sacks. “The relationship to Israel is extraordinarily high, and about 80% of Jews in the recent survey said they had a special relationship with Israel.”

Anton Nossik, a Jewish activist from the former Soviet Union, gave a bleak prediction. The founder of several Jewish organizations in that part of the world said he expected the Jewish community to disappear by the time his child reaches middle age.

The revival of Jewish life after communism – miraculous as it may have been – was superficial and would not take root, Nossik said.

Rabbi Shmuel Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, opted to speak in Hebrew, saying the language was a means to ensure survival.

“Despite being small in numbers, we [in Italy] have had a strong influence on world Jewry,” he said.

Still, demographic trends pose a serious threat to his community’s existence.

“In Italy, women have 1.3 babies on average, and Jewish women have even less,” he said.

The discussion could have ended on a dire note, but Sacks, an experienced preacher with a gift for public speaking, would not have it.

The rabbi took to the podium a second time and delivered a fiery sermon recalling the story of Gideon and the few against the many, reminding the audience that the future is in its own hands.

“We cannot let European Jewry die; but, more importantly, Europe cannot let it die,” he said. “It is a moral imperative and we are not going to give up without a bloody fight.”

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