Jewish Community Service and Leadership: A Tribute to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“What is Judaism? A religion? A faith? A way of life? A set of beliefs? A collection of commands? A culture? A civilization? It is all these, but it is emphatically something more.
It is a way of thinking, a constellation of ideas: a way of understanding the world and our place within it. Judaism contains life-changing ideas.”

From “Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l taught us the importance of the Jewish voice in the conversation among civilizations. He had a profound understanding of Jewish sources and Jewish ideas. He was in conversation with antiquity’s greatest minds and ideas as well as those that are shaping the intellectual and social reality of our time. He had a profound impact on the self understanding of the Jewish people in Israel and in every land of the diaspora but also brought Jewish ideas to bear on the greatest challenges facing humankind.

But for me and for those of us who live within and serve the Jewish community it’s important to remember that his starting point, the beginning of his understanding of the world, was his concern for his people. His understanding of the universal was rooted in his love and concern for his particular community, for our people. His first concern, the beginning of his broader intellectual work was finding solutions to the challenges that faced his community and ours. It’s why his books and writings were so central to our work in Boston’s Jewish community over the last 30 years and to our work at Brandeis training and inspiring the next generation of community leadership.

His books were beautifully written and filled with great ideas. I bought each one beginning with A Letter in the Scroll in 1990. I had come to Boston, to CJP in 1987 and was obsessed with issues of Jewish identity and Jewish education and A Letter in the Scroll helped explain the mystery of Jewish identity and the importance of Jewish education. I dog eared and underlined dozens of pages and sent copies to board members and donors and friends. I could see how important Rabbi Sacks’ ideas were to everyone who read his books but his influence and power became clearer to me when the past chair of CJP’s board bought scores of copies to send to his children and friends and associates. From that time on, I gave a book to everyone I met as a reminder of our meeting and the beauty of Jewish learning. Rabbi Sacks’ books were the ones I sent most frequently because they always seemed appropriate to the moment of Jewish history in which we were living and reflected our work as a Federation at the leading edge of Jewish history.

While focusing on Jewish education and learning and the particular human service needs of the Jewish community we were challenged to find a balance between our responsibilities to the Jewish community and our Jewish responsibility to our neighbors outside the Jewish community. Finding the right balance proved controversial and we badly needed a set of Jewish ideas to help us think about the division of scarce resources in the context of community. As always, Rabbi Sacks was there for us providing context, wisdom and Torah in The Dignity of Difference and To Heal a Fractured World to help us see how deeply rooted our universal values are in our most significant Jewish sources and traditions. It was those books and Rabbi Sacks’ ideas that helped forge Boston’s unique balance between the universal and the particular in our approach to community priorities.

Guided by Rabbi Sacks ideas, we acknowledged the overarching role of the Federation in support of Jewish particularity including our investment in Jewish education and support for Israel. At the same time, we acknowledged our universal responsibilities in our work with partners, in solidarity with the other faiths and communities of greater Boston.

Of course, Jewish education and learning remained central to Rabbi Sacks’ work in London and to our ongoing work in Boston. In 2010 Rabbi Sacks invited me to London to share ideas with “Jewish Continuity” his Foundation for Jewish Educational Programs and Outreach. It was there in London that Rabbi Sacks gave me a copy of his new book Future Tense,filled with revolutionary new ideas that helped shape our Federation and our Jewish community. More than a spiritual leader, Rabbi Sacks was also a social philosopher and intellectual. His books linked the great ideas and insights of Torah and Talmud, Jewish philosophy and literature to the great social thinkers of our time including intellectuals like Michael Walzer, Viktor Frankl, Robert Putnam, Robert Bellah and Michael Sandel. Rabbi Sacks’ unique vision of Jewish civil society emerged from this blend of Jewish thought and contemporary social research and theory.

In his essay on Vayakhel, Rabbi Sacks outlined some of his ideas on community. “Ours is a religion of community. Our holiest prayers can only be said in the presence of a minyan, the minimum definition of a community. When we pray, we do so as a community. Martin Buber spoke of I-and-Thou, but Judaism is really a matter of We-and-Thou.” In the same essay, Rabbi Sacks wrote of “the advancing tide of loneliness, successive stages in the long, extended breakdown of community in modern life. Robert Bellah put it eloquently when he wrote that ‘social ecology is damaged not only by war, genocide and political repression. It is also damaged by the destruction of the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them frightened and alone.”

For Rabbi Sacks the answer to this existential loneliness, to the deterioration of Jewish life in Israel and in the diaspora and to the growing social divisions that are tearing American society apart is the rebuilding of civil society around covenantal virtues like love, friendship, influence and sharing. Covenantal virtues, he writes in Future Tense are “arenas of co-operation.” The home of covenantal virtue “is not the state or the market but civil society: families, communities, schools, congregations, fellowships (chevrot), and society itself…”

Rabbi Sacks represents our highest aspirations for Jewish communal service and leadership…integrating vision, theory and practice with intellectual excellence and passion at the leading edge of Jewish history. His ideas helped guide the development of Boston’s unique Jewish community, its philosophy, programs and priorities over three decades, just as they will help shape Jewish communities throughout the world for years to come.

“And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him. . . (Ex. 13:14)
“About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators. That is what made Moses not just a great leader, but a unique one. What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. So Jews became the people whose passion was education, whose citadels were schools and whose heroes were teachers…”
“The Defense of Freedom” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“The message of the Hebrew Bible is that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by how they care for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. What renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable.”

To Heal a Fractured World Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP
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