Sacks Scholars program kicks off in 4-day Jerusalem retreat

The four-day retreat, June 27-July 1, served as the launching point for a year-long initiative to cultivate a network of Sacks-inspired scholars.

 The opening session of the Sacks Scholars retreat at Confederation House. (photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
The opening session of the Sacks Scholars retreat at Confederation House.
(photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)

“One of the most important tasks of a leader is to encourage leadership in others. Leaders should never stop learning. That is how they grow and teach others to grow with them,” said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

This quotation of Rabbi Sacks, who passed away on November 7, 2020, expresses the underlying principles behind the Sacks Scholars program, a platform through which Jewish community leaders and teachers in Israel and around the globe can work together in transmitting the rabbi’s teachings, thoughts, and writings. 

A group of 26 Jewish educators and communal professionals who shared personal connections with Sacks convened in Jerusalem for a high-level immersive learning experience led by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

Rabbi Sacks Legacy's new program will help raise new scholars

The four-day retreat, June 27-July 1, served as the launching point for a year-long initiative to cultivate a network of Sacks-inspired scholars. Following the retreat, participants will partake in 10 monthly online seminars led by global leaders in Jewish education, academia, and politics. 

Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, program director of the Sacks Scholars retreat, told The Jerusalem Report: “The purpose of scholars is to support, cultivate and train a generation of leaders to build and perpetuate Sacks’s legacy and memory and continue to teach Sacks’s Torah and wisdom around the world.”

 Israeli singer Ishay Ribo and journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir chat on stage. (credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
Israeli singer Ishay Ribo and journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir chat on stage. (credit: YONIT SCHILLER)

He said that Sacks called for a Judaism engaged with the world, a Judaism that addresses contemporary issues of global importance, and that during the Jerusalem retreat and throughout the year-long program, the Sacks Scholars will create new ways to respond to this vital challenge.”

Bruce said the program’s scholars are from Israel and around the globe – the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa, Australia – and all had a personal relationship with Sacks. He had supported and mentored them. “Our scholars will mentor the next generation of Jewish leaders with Torah u’hochmah [Torah integrated with general wisdom],  an ideology which Rabbi Sacks represented.” 

He continued: “Rabbi Sacks was a master in making Judaism contemporary. Rabbi Sacks grappled with and addressed the issues facing the Jewish world, Israel, and the global society. We cannot replicate Rabbi Sacks, but what we can do is transmit his teachings and methodology and take a stand like Rabbi Sacks would have done on ethical and moral issues.” 

Based on Sacks’s entire corpus of knowledge – his books, speeches, a 4,000-page website, videos, animations, and TedTalks – Bruce said the aim was to transmit his teachings and methodology. “Rabbi Sacks was at the cutting edge of new media – he wanted to make himself accessible.”

Bruce described Sacks as someone who cared deeply about the relationship between tefillah [prayer] and spirituality. “He loved music and was a deeply spiritual man,” he added. Therefore, a feature of the retreat was a concert on Wednesday evening called The Spirituality of Song, led by Ishay Ribo and Sivan Rahav Meir in the ancient City of David. On Friday morning, there was a prayer session with Rabbi Yossi Fruman in the Sacks Forest, situated in the Jerusalem Forest. 

Bruce concluded, “Our hope is that our scholars will share with each other their own knowledge and techniques they use and spread Rabbi Sacks’s profound Torah and hochmah to new, broader audiences. ”

Joanna Benarroch, chief executive of the Rabbi Sacks Legacy, told the Report: “Rabbi Sacks’s thoughts and leadership far transcend his immediate community and had a global impact. This week, we brought together his students who are leaders in their communities for an intensive conference to discuss how to continue to share his wisdom with people around the world.”

She said that by relaying tools to spread Rabbi Sacks’s teachings, “the scholars are continuing to perpetuate his legacy, as well as emulating what Rabbi Sacks saw as each person’s strongest obligation – not just leading but empowering others to lead.”

The Report spoke with five Sacks Scholars who traveled to Jerusalem to take part in the retreat. 

Sarah Hass Robinson, rebbetzin at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, is a Jewish educator with a professional emphasis on social work education. She also holds the position of associate director of field instruction there and is interested in conversations about the intersection between Jewish identity and diversity.

“It is incredibly exciting to be congregating in Israel to focus on the life, philosophy, and message of Rabbi Lord Sacks,” she said. “He had been our teacher and role model, as well as cheerleader. The purpose of diving deep into his thought, writing, and leadership is a huge honor and a unique opportunity, allowing us to focus on ways to pay forward the influence he had on us as individuals and as a peer group.”

She said she was “starstruck” by his “unique take on Bilaam’s prophecies” when he at visited Lincoln Square Synagogue in 2010. 

“I had never heard a Torah leader propose that the familiar utterance ‘A people that dwells alone’ is not a recommendation or a state of bliss but a dangerous status creating unnecessary vulnerability in contemporary times. I reached out in an attempt to clarify my experiences as a religious Jewish woman in the academic anti-racist space of a school of social work, and I received reassurance that engaging with the complexities of identity in this arena was valuable.” 

Hass Robinson said she is working on creating a curriculum for Jewish middle school students in North America which will allow them to enhance their own connection to their Jewish values and identity while acknowledging diversity within and outside the Jewish community. 

Rabbi Prof. Samuel Lebens, professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, said: “In a nutshell, I think that the idea behind this fellowship is a recognition that no single person can fill the massive void that was left behind by our teacher and mentor Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. And yet, we also recognize that the message he was trying to convey, and the example he was trying to set, is so important that we cannot afford for that voice and that perspective to be lost.” 

Lebens said he believed that the hope was to create a community of scholars, educators, thinkers, and leaders in different fields and pockets of the global Jewish community    “so that we can collectively seek to stand in that giant space that he has left behind.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be part of that effort and to think about new ways in which to spread further the light of his Torah, which continues to inspire and attract Jews and gentiles all over the world.”

Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein, part of the senior rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, said: “My husband Daniel and I took on the post at Western Marble Arch in March of 2021, a few short months after Rabbi Sacks’s untimely passing. Our communal hall where kiddushes are held, and where all events large and small take place, is called the Rabbi Sacks Room, with his most memorable quotes adorning the walls. 

“With this in mind, during Shabbat Bereshit 2021, I opened Rabbi Sacks’s book Judaism’s Life-changing Ideas and invited the women of the shul each Shabbat morning to the Rabbi Sacks Room, where we discussed his ideas for that week’s parasha. It was so successful that we started the cycle all over again this past Shabbat Bereishit with Rabbi Sacks’s book that was printed posthumously, I Believe.” 

She continued, “As part of the Sacks Scholars program, I have a number of ideas of the projects I would like to do. But the one that is most fully formed thus far is taking the model we created at WMA – a weekly discussion of the parsha based on a Rabbi Sacks article – and reinventing it for a podcast format; each week discussing the idea with colleagues, friends, and strangers from diverse backgrounds. 

“I feel humbled and privileged to be part of this incredible cadre of scholars, and I can’t wait to see what each person produces, disseminating Rabbi Sacks’s Torah to even more people through a multitude of new access points,” Epstein concluded.

Simon Lawrence, director of Jewish Studies at Carmel School in Perth, Australia, said: “The passing of Rabbi Sacks almost three years ago left the world bereft of his remarkably creative input into the Jewish world. The breadth and depth of his work now presents us with the platform to implement his vision into our communities. I am extremely grateful to the team at the Rabbi Sacks Legacy for offering me this opportunity.” 

As a Jewish educator in Perth, Lawrence said he is keen to enlist the help of his fellow Sacks Scholars during this retreat to begin to explore ways to develop the rabbi’s works in a meaningful, deliberate, structured and organized fashion, appropriate for Carmel School and the Jewish community of Western Australia. 

Of particular interest to Lawrence are “the various recurrent themes in his works such as freedom, education, covenant, conversation, continuity and morality. My goal for the coming days, weeks, and months is to explore ways to implement educational content surrounding these themes into both the formal and experiential Jewish life and learning of our school and community.” 

Rabbi Dr. Seth Grauer, rosh yeshiva and head of the Bnei Akiva Schools in Toronto, said: “As far as I know, no leadership-focused curriculum exists within the larger Jewish day school world. Why not? Surely our schools are looking to train the next generation of Jewish leaders! Especially at a time when we are lacking leaders with the breadth of scholarship and sensitivity to humanity that Rabbi Sacks possessed.”

Grauer added, “Rabbi Sacks devoted much of his life and writings to pearls of leadership wisdom, and they are there literally begging to be taught to our students.”

Grauer said he “would be very excited to play a role in creating such a program. A structured, well-defined process that would distill the most salient, most relevant points and arrange them into a challenging, practical, and rewarding curriculum for day school students worldwide.”

The question now is how to ensure that Jewish leaders remain motivated and grow and are thereby able to continue to inspire others. The answer, according to the Sacks Scholars program, is by having leaders work with one another and collaborating.

Sacks famously said that “Good leaders create followers, but great leaders create leaders.” 

Judging by the success of the retreat and the energy and passion of the faculty and participants, we have much to look forward to.  ■