In the hot summer of 2006 Western Marble Arch synagogue held a wonderful choral Shabbaton as part of the celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of Jews to England. Rabbi Lord Sacks z’l, then Chief Rabbi, and I, then President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, were the guest speakers.
A few days earlier, RLS had called me and asked if my wife, Alison, and I would join him and his wife, Elaine, for a walk on Shabbat.
We happily agreed, looking forward to a pleasant stroll in Hyde Park. Late afternoon we met them, and Elaine’s brother and sister-in-law, and set off.
Hyde Park became St James’ Park, became Buckingham Palace, became The Mall, became Whitehall, became Westminster Bridge, became the Royal Festival Hall before we turned round and made our weary and thirsty way back to Cumberland Place.
“Did you enjoy that, Henry?”, said the invigorated Chief. “Very much”, said I, hiding my exhaustion. “Good” he said. “Next time we’ll go to Tower Bridge!”
RLS was a truly amazing man, and I had the privilege of working with him throughout my time at the Board and afterwards.
As an advocate by profession, I was, and remain, in genuine awe at his powers of oratory. Modern technology has thankfully ensured that his many teachings and sermons and speeches are available online. One year after the death of the Lubavitch Rebbe, z’l. he spoke about the effect that the Rebbe had had on him. His speech was so powerful that it had a direct effect on my level of Jewish observance which lasts to this day. For the secular world, his 2017 Ted Talk – Facing the Future Without Fear – was outstanding. He was an exceptional Torah scholar and teacher who could also guide the non-Jewish world with his teachings on moral philosophy.
In his books, essays and media writings, both for the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds, he displayed an intellect and knowledge that few can match. If he decided or was asked to produce a piece on a particular topic, he would read as widely as one can imagine on and around the subject. His library grew and grew.
Part of his legacy is the Koren Sacks machzorim, the series thankfully completed. I know that some don’t like the print and the layout; for me, the only problem is that his essays are so compelling that they sometimes take over from the actual davening!
The first volume to be released was the Rosh Hashanah machzor. As soon as the publication was announced, my wife ordered a copy online for me, something I treasure to this day. What neither of us realised was that it was the USA version. I discovered on Rosh Hashanah that the pagination differs from the UK version but, more importantly, it contains a prayer for the President of the USA rather than for the Queen. When RLS phoned this erev Rosh Hashanah to wish us Shana Tova, we discovered that he had the same problem. It may be that the residency of the USA needs all our prayers more than our Monarchy!
When he stepped down as Chief Rabbi, the Covenant and Conversation Trust was set up to promote his teachings. RLS did me the signal honour of asking me to chair the Trust, which I am proud still to do. One of the benefits of being a trustee has been that, each year, one of the meetings was held at his home, followed by a shiur. Not surprisingly, those were the best-attended of our meetings! The tributes that have flooded in from all over the world show how deep was the impact he made in both the Jewish and the wider communities. His shiurim and talks will continue to he heard. His books will continue to be read. His Jewish educational materials will continue to be used in schools of all types and at all levels.
The role of the Covenant and Conversation Trust is therefore even more important now.
I am conscious of the responsibility that places on us, and we will ensure that he continues to be an inspiration and that we will try to live up to what he would want us all to be.
I already miss him deeply We will all miss him deeply and our sincere condolences go to his dear wife, Elaine, whom he always included in his speeches, his children and grandchildren, his brothers, and to those who worked closely with him over his years as Chief Rabbi and beyond.
In 2013, at the dinner to mark his retirement as Chief Rabbi, HRH, Prince Charles described RLS as “a light unto the nation”.
It is our duty to see that that light continues to shine.