“For Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are.
No people ever cared for education more.”
-Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
A Nation of Educators
Rabbi Sacks zt”l wrote in A Letter in the Scroll, the exquisite articulation of his philosophy of Judaism, about the value of education in Judaism and Jewish civilization. This theme permeated his writings and thought, across the many mediums through which he impacted the world, from books to parasha commentary, from his frequent articles and broadcasts in the media to his speeches in the House of Lords. As he put it: “for Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are.”
Look closely, and you will notice how he places this responsibility not solely on teachers and schools. He did not believe in the outsourcing of the duty of education to professionals. For Rabbi Sacks, the primary institution of education in the life of a Jewish child is the family, and the foremost educator with the deepest impact is the parent.
He believed that the Jewish people were a “nation of educators”, conveyed directly by their greatest leader Moses, in the moment they became a nation, during the foundational speech made as he led his flock from slavery toward their destiny as a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” in the promised land. In the words of Rabbi Sacks:
The Israelites, slaves in Egypt for more than two hundred years, were about to go free… On the brink of their release, Moshe, the leader of the Jews, gathered them together and prepared to address them. He might have spoken about freedom. He could have given a stirring address about the promised land to which they were travelling, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Or he might have prepared them for the journey that lay ahead, the long march across the wilderness.
Instead, Moshe delivered a series of addresses that seemed to make no sense in the context of that particular moment. He presented a new idea, revolutionary in character, whose implications remain challenging even now. He spoke about children, and the distant future, and the duty to pass on memory to generations yet unborn… About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators.
Freedom, Moshe suggested, is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moshe realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.
The Israelites built living monuments – monuments to life – and became a people dedicated to bringing new generations into being and handing on to them the heritage of the past. Their great institutions were the family and education via the conversation between the generations.
The Jewish Algorithm
At the Olami summit in London in 2017, speaking to over 1400 young Jewish leaders from around the world, Rabbi Sacks presented from a deeply personal place what Judaism meant to him and why it should mean a great deal to them. In 2020, when thousands of Jewish students were missing out on their graduation ceremonies because of lockdowns and restrictions due to the global pandemic, Rabbi Sacks suggested the speech should became a sort of commencement speech from him to them, as they embark on the next stage of their lives. In the speech he described the Torah as a “Jewish algorithm”, given to the Jews to turn them into “the most remarkable, tenacious, fate-defying people the world has ever known.” He then went on to outline seven elements from the Torah that are key to this, two of which I believe can be achieved through intergenerational learning.
In the fifth element he spoke about the value in Judaism of life-long learning: “Judaism will keep your mind active for a lifetime because to be a Jew has to be a moment of life-long learning.” When Rabbi Sacks described education as a core Jewish value, he did not limit this to the education of the young. While Jews can proudly say they were the first society to implement universal education for the young, some eighteen centuries before any other society, this is only a part of the picture. Judaism believes in truly universal education, because the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is for everyone, of every age.
Rabbi Sacks concludes the speech with his seventh element of the Jewish algorithm, the importance of storytelling and identity building. “For happiness, for success, for resilience you need a sense of identity, you need to know who you are, of what story you are a part. We are not some free-floating atoms in space blown by every wind. To be a Jew is to be part of the greatest story on earth.”
Passing on Our Narrative
In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall explores how stories make us human, build identity, and “bind fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas.” It is Judaism as a narrative that builds Jewish identity, and that narrative becomes accessible through Torah learning. Not just stories in the Tanakh, or even the aggadic narratives of the Talmud, but the civilization that is Judaism in its broadest sense. That is the narrative of Judaism. This is transmitted from generation to generation through Talmud Torah, and intergenerational learning is a fruitful mode for this to take place.
In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler shows how management techniques can be used at home also to help make families cohesive units that make space for personal growth. He concludes the book with a profound point: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”  Rabbi Sacks considered this a core parental responsibility, to work hard toward the acculturation of children into the identity and values of the parent community. “A family narrative connects children to something larger than themselves. It helps them make sense of how they fit into the world that existed before they were born. It gives them the starting-point of an identity. That in turn becomes the basis of confidence. It enables children to say: This is who I am. This is the story of which I am a part. These are the people who came before me and whose descendant I am. These are the roots of which I am the stem reaching upward toward the sun.”
The Covenant & Conversation Family Edition
In 2002 Rabbi Sacks embarked on an ambitious new project – to write an essay on the weekly parasha every week, to be disseminated around the world. He called this Covenant & Conversation, and he continued the project through many more parasha cycles, until the end of his life. The brilliance of these essays was the way Rabbi Sacks found complex ideas of Jewish thought expressed in the week’s Torah reading, articulated them and made them relevant to our lives today, enriching our understanding of them through contemporary wisdom (what he would later come to term chokhmah – science, including the social sciences, as well as popular culture). In writing these essays in beautiful and elegant language which was nevertheless accessible to all (including non-Jews), he elevated style to the level of substance.
In his introduction to the collection of these essays from the Book of Genesis, published by Maggid Press, he explained the choice of the title of the project, Covenant & Conversation:
I have called these studies Covenant & Conversation because this, for me, is the essence of what Torah learning is – throughout the ages, and for us, now. The text of Torah is our covenant with God, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation for as long as Jews have studied the divine word, a conversation that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours. Participating in that conversation is a major part of what it is to be a Jew. For we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the God of life.
As an educator and a parent, for many years I believed that these simple yet sophisticated essays could be adapted for a younger audience, and on several occasions I used them in my own classroom with middle and high school students.
In 2016 Rabbi Sacks and his team intensified their investment in resources to help Jewish educators in their work. I was privileged to be part of this initiative, and one of the projects we worked on together was two cycles of Covenant & Conversation Family Edition, sent out to families and communities across the world to bring the ideas of Rabbi Sacks on the weekly parasha in an accessible form, as a resource for intergenerational learning around the shabbat table. These have now been published in a beautifully designed two-volume set.
A Conversation is Two-Way
The role of the parent-as-educator is one that has always come naturally to me as a professional Jewish educator and someone who is passionate about parenting. Just ask my kids how tiresome Friday night meals can sometimes get (we call them our Weekly Seder Night). Perhaps after COVID, when parents took on a more prominent role in their children’s education during the period of the homeschool hybrid model, which placed parents front and center in their education for a few months, many came to realise this. Thank God that is all behind us now, but hopefully the sense that parents have a significant responsibility as a Jewish educator in the lives of their children is not.
That responsibility must take the form of initiating the conversation. But conversations are two-way. Every parent knows this only too well. We probably learn this when our first-born child first learns to say no! But this really hit home while our family was living in Atlanta, GA, during a period of shlichut. The wonderful Jewish day school (then GHA, now AJA) took intergenerational learning very seriously and regularly invited parents and grandparents into the school for Torah learning programs. My parents happened to be visiting from London and were thrilled to sit in the sukka and learn with our oldest, who was then nine years old (she is now 21!) I watched from the other side of the giant sukka as she taught them everything she had learned about Sukkot. And she really was teaching them. Because the conversation about the covenant is two-way.
When Covenant & Conversation Family Edition was launched for 5779 (in October 2018), Rabbi Sacks made a video to explain the vision behind the projects. In that video he said:
We hope you’ll find this a useful resource to deepen your understanding of the covenant of our Torah, but of equal importance to engage in a meaningful conversation about our Torah with our children and the next generation. Participating in that conversation, and encouraging your children to participate with you, is a major part of what it is to be a Jew, because we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the God of Life. There is nothing more beautiful or life affirming than learning Torah with your children. Give them the space not only to be your students, but also to be your teachers, and they will grow tall. That’s how we can truly secure the Jewish future. This is a framework for engaging with these ideas and enhancing discussion around the Shabbat table. That is what the Shabbat table is really all about.
 A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (Free Press, 2004) pp. 33-34
 The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Mariner Books, 2013) p. 138
 The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More (William Morrow, 2013) p. 274
 The Spiritual Child, in Studies in Spirituality (Maggid, 2021) pp. 75-76
 Living with the Times: The Parsha in Covenant & Conversation – Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Maggid, 2009) p. 3