Jordan Silvestri
"You either stand for something or nothing at all"

Letter to an Old Friend

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Time has always been an archenemy of mine. Whether I plan, wake up early or initiate a full court press, I am always running from time or simply running out of it. This past weekend, in the midst of one of the most magnificent Shabbat that I can remember, the news of my rebbi, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, made its way to the shores of the Americas. I would be remiss if I did not provide the following disclaimer: Rabbi Sacks and I never met, we never spoke words of torah, Jewish philosophy or theology or shared a Yom Tov meal together. Frankly, the closest that I ever got to shaking his hands was on the streets of Washington Heights, NY following a shiur he had just shared. Yet, unequivocally, I have called Rabbi Sacks “Rebbi” for the better part of 12 years. 

When I heard of his passing, I was in shock and denial. When I saw the official report from his office, I was heartbroken and speechless. When I heard the countless reactions and stories on the day of his funeral, I was broken down to tears. Yet, not for the reasons most of you would think. Let’s rewind the tape to the year 2007 and enter my third year of learning in Yeshivat Hakotel in the Old City of Yerushalyim. 

That year was meant to be my penultimate third and final year of pure, dedicated learning, delving into my religious identity before returning to New York for college. Well, at least that is what I thought when the year began. Silly me. Enter divorce, heartache, therapy, financial challenges and many other “stumbling blocks.” My life was a bit heavy to say the least and my attention toward my studies waned. As the year started to close, I felt lost, unsure of myself or where my journey would take me, and certainly no clear cut understanding of why this was all happening to me at this exact time. 

I recall it like it was yesterday. Shabbat was just a few hours away and I stumbled into the beit midrash, study hall, where I saw this english pamphlet, “Covenant and Conversation,” a weekly dvar torah from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. What I never could imagine is that a simple 4 page masterpiece of Jewish thought, literary prowess, and philosophical expertise would change my life forever. 

From that moment on, every week I read that pamphlet as if it was written directly to and for me. Thus began an over ten year chavruta, study group, with Rabbi Sacks which led to books, siddurim, videos, and so much more. I consumed content like I had not eaten for days. Why? Each week in 2007, I struggled with my Jewish identity, who I was, who I was supposed to be and what I was meant to do with all this hurt and pain. Rabbi Sacks wrote about leadership, moral, ethical and covenantal responsibility as if he knew exactly what I was struggling with and needed to know. His words resonate in my ears, my soul, my heart and inner core and I simply could not get them out. They rang in my ear so loud that I was overcome with mission, with foundation and with purpose. 

As the years past, my life brought new challenges and struggles to overcome. Rabbi Sacks was there every step of the way. My wife began to see his books pile up in my office and fill up bookshelf after bookshelf. He guided me back to learning, to pursuing my rabbinic degree and to dedicating my life’s work to Jewish education. Yet, my greatest wish was to have the chance to meet Rabbi Sacks and his wife, Elaine, to thank them for all they had done in supporting me during a time of need without ever even meeting them. 

Now, that dream has met its untimely end. Over the past 24 hours, I have walked around broken and lost. A paradigm like no other I have seen, passed away way too soon. In a time where we needed his voice, his mind, his heart, his ability to break barriers and demarcations, always with a pithy phrase and an unassuming smile. I had hoped that my children would have been able to reap the same benefits and fruits of his words of wisdom as I had all these many years. 

I felt that there was only one way to rectify this. My oldest daughter will celebrate her becoming bat mitzvah in a few short years. While there is plenty of time before this momentous occasion, I have been reflecting on it for months now. I wrote a draft of the speech I would hope to share with her that pays homage to “my rebbi.”

Chayli, this moment is one that simply was unimaginable to mommy and me so many years ago. We spent the last 12 years supporting you through countless ups and downs, surgeries, community and school changes, and so much more. Yet, we could not be prouder of the girl that you have become. We have thought long and hard as to what message we wanted to share with you on the occasion of you becoming a bat mitzvah. 

As many of you know if you have heard me speak once, and certainly if you heard me twice, I rarely share torah without quoting Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Today will not be any different. Chayli, while you never met Rabbi Sacks, he is a large reason why mommy and I got married, why I made many of the life decisions that led us here and why I became a rabbi. 

A few years prior to his untimely passing, Rabbi Sacks gave a speech that has been titled “The Jewish Algorithm.” During this speech, he spoke about what it means to be a Jew. He quoted Shakspeare who said “Some are born great, Some achieve greatness, but some have greatness thrust upon them.” As Jews, we are a people whom greatness is thrust upon us as G-d’s chosen people. Through the power of our ideas we have the ability to change the world. The images of our heroes and teachers are solidified through the Torah which they learn and the journey which it set them on. Yet, with all that being said, Jews around the world are choosing to leave the faith. 

The question, as Rabbi Sacks asks, is simply this – how can we change this? How can we improve this reality in a time when we are free to practice Judaism and have the State of Israel as vibrant as it is today? Chayli, you are the reason that I, like Rabbi Sacks, have made the decision not to be another statistic. Your passion and drive for learning, parsha and exploration has inspired mommy and me to always pursue our Jewish connection and strengthen it. 

Rabbi Sacks outlined a list of strengths, an algorithm of Judaism through which torah guides us on this journey. 

  1. Your success and happiness will not be found on your own. It will be done through your relationships. Torah will help strengthen the quality of your relationships. 
  2. All success depends on habits of discipline. Follow and learn the halacha, Jewish laws.
  3. If you want to avoid burnout, you have to keep Shabbat. 
  4. Happiness is a matter of gratitude with attitude. We thank before we even think. 
  5. Judaism will keep you mind active as we are lifelong learners. 
  6. You will need an internal moral code, the inner voice that says no. 
  7. For you to gain happiness, success, and develop resilience you need to know who you are and of what story you are apart. 

See, Chayli, these strategies are the reason I am who I am today. I see in you the desire to bring joy, happiness, excitement to others, to always be the warrior of morality and what is fair, infusing joy in  celebrating Shabbat with our family and enhancing our table with your joy for parsha studies, and you inextinguishable drive in exploring where we came from and your parents’ story impacts the story of who you are. 

Chayli, being a Jew is hard but it is the hard things that make up feel alive, that gives us the most meaning. As you change yourself you ultimately change your story. Your story is just beginning but mommy and I could not be prouder to have a front court seat to see it all happen. 

Rebbi, you were there for me when I needed it, you were there for me when the world needed it, and, I hope, that in time your messages will spread to all ends of the earth, that your mission will not cease with your final breaths but will become a calling in the hearts and souls of so many that it resonated with. To your dearest wife, Elaine, and family, thank you for allowing us the immense pleasure of Rabbi Sack’s contributions not only for saving so many Jewish lives but for allowing me the chance to grab hold of the greatness thrust upon me and step up to its calling. 

In her eulogy of her late father, Gila Sacks, highlighted two lessons that her father bestowed upon her and her siblings. The first, that the world is there to be challenged where the notion of an unsolvable problem does not exist. The second, that our love for our children has the power to guide them to become the people that they are. 

My dearest Rebbi, challenge accepted

About the Author
Jordan Silvestri is the Associate Director of Student Life at the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle School. Jordan is an avid reader in the areas of leadership, education, and developing meaningful and lasting relationships. Jordan has dedicated his life to making moments matter and inspiring the lives of our Jewish future one child at a time. Jordan lives in Bergenfield, NJ with his wife and three children.
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