Mijal Bitton

The alchemy of Rabbi Sacks’ leadership: To create leaders, empower students

In a dishonest world, where cynicism is tempting, our Sacks Scholars program was countercultural, reminding us to serve with joy, hope, courage, and wonder
Pic: Yonit Schiller
Pic: Yonit Schiller

Last week, I had the opportunity to be part of a truly unforgettable educational gathering in the heart of Jerusalem, the Sacks Scholars Program. It was an experience that went far beyond anything I could have imagined. It touched my heart and inspired me spiritually in ways I had long stopped expecting.

Since my return, I’ve been slowly adapting to my regular routine without the presence of this remarkable group of individuals. They were not only kind and funny (mostly in what I now assume is a hilarious and charming British way), but they also became friends who embody integrity, sincerity, and avodat Hashem (service of God). As I reflect on the magic of our time together, I’ve been trying to pinpoint what made this gathering so exceptional.

And here’s what I’ve realized: at its very core, this gathering embodied one of the most profound teachings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l: servant leadership. It was a gathering of his students dedicated to their teacher’s call for selfless service and the impact it can have on our lives and the world around us. And this idea moved me because it is remarkably countercultural, offering hope in difficult and even lonely times for all but especially those working in public service.

* * *

Nearly three years have passed since the profound loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zikhrono livracha. I’ve written before about the deep impact he had on my life. I was blessed to learn from him in lower Manhattan and to host him in our home and community, the Downtown Minyan.

Yet, even now, speaking of my interactions with him brings overwhelming emotion.  I have struggled to understand my enduring sense of personal loss. 

The remarkable gathering of the Sacks Scholars Program in Jerusalem helped. This inaugural cohort consisted of 26 Jewish thinkers,  rabbis, and educators who shared a personal connection with Rabbi Sacks and view themselves as his talmidim and talmidot (close personal students, perhaps even disciples). The program invited us to a five-day retreat in Jerusalem, followed by ongoing virtual collaboration to promote Rabbi Sacks’ legacy.

Pic: Yonit Schiller

Everyone I’ve spoken to since I returned has endured my enthusiastic raving about the Sacks Scholars program retreat, surpassing all expectations. Moreover, the extraordinary experience shed light on the reasons for my enduring grief. Several people suggested that I try to articulate why it had such an impact.

The Sacks Scholars program moved me deeply, since it served as a powerful reminder that the potential for such leadership inspired by Rabbi Sacks’ Torah and example is alive and vibrant. In a world often characterized by loneliness, uncertainty, and cynicism, Rabbi Sacks represented hopeful servant leadership, in which a leader is primarily dedicated to serving God and others. As a role, it is genuinely challenging. It requires a delicate balance of confidence and humility. We need the confidence to face our greatest challenges, engage with diverse perspectives, and lead in a world filled with conflict and division. At the same time, we must remain humble, recognizing that we are merely vessels for God’s work. 

Servant leadership means believing that if we have contributed to making this world even a bit less fractured, though our names be forgotten — dayenu — that is enough.

The program fostered servant leadership by deviating from the traditional approach to leadership development. Instead of asking us to become leaders, we were invited to lead because we see ourselves as students. And bringing together individual leaders as students to honor their teacher created something magical. It instilled a profound sense of collective yirat Shamayim, a fear of heaven. The usual human follies that often plague us, such as competitiveness and ego, took a back seat to the transcendent project of honoring Rabbi Sacks and spreading his Torah. We aimed to honor him both in the Heavens above and here on Earth.

With this in mind, I would like to share seven valuable insights about leadership I gained from this program. While these insights hold particular relevance for those inspired by Rabbi Sacks’ Torah, they can also benefit anyone seeking to embrace and empower servant leadership. 

(1) Believe in Your Own Leadership: Rabbi Dr. Raphy Zarum, one of our educational staff leaders stressed the importance of not trying to imitate Rabbi Sacks, as that would hinder our own potential to make a unique positive impact. Rabbi Sacks had exceptional qualities that cannot be replicated. Rather than striving to be “mini Sacks,” we should remember his belief in each of us. 

Leadership isn’t innate nor does it require mimicking a single mold. It occurs when our individual talents respond to current needs.

(2) Engage in Torah’s Eternal Conversation: Rabbi Dr. Sam Lebens, a Sacks Scholar, showcased philosophically reverse-engineering Rabbi Sacks’ ideas. Beyond extracting concepts from his books, he engaged with the world of meaning that influenced Rabbi Sacks. Similarly, Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, the exceptional leader of the Sacks Scholars program, introduced the practice of Nokhekhut (presence). Nokhekhut allows us to connect spiritually with a deceased Torah scholar, engaging in conversations and developing their Torah. Observing Rabbi Sacks’ students expanding, and even at times respectfully disagreeing with, Rabbi Sacks’ approaches in their role as his students was a beautiful display of Nokhekhut in action. 

Leaders must inherit and expand a dynamic Torah through continuous covenantal conversations.

Pic: Yonit Schiller

(3) Center Avodat Hamiddot, Individual Self-improvement: Rather than focusing on Rabbi Sacks’ brilliance and accomplishments, the program commenced with a two-day study of his personal attributes, based on our own interactions with him. Scholars emphasized instances where he displayed empowerment, humility, and collective responsibility. In a world that often fixates on credentials, we delved into Rabbi Sacks’ personal growth rather than his external achievements. One speaker, for instance, highlighted his commitment to avoiding negative speech (Lashon Hara). This provided me with yet another perspective on how to learn from him, considering that my experience with him differed in context. 

Authentic leadership originates from within, acknowledging that our inner selves are the foremost endeavor for which we hold ourselves responsible.

(4) Remember That All Leaders Are Humans: It was deeply meaningful to hear from those closest to Rabbi Sacks, including Lady Elaine Sacks, his brother Alan Sacks, and Joanna Benarroch, his longtime chief-of-staff and now CEO of the Rabbi Sacks Legacy Fund. Their shared anecdotes, both light-hearted and from challenging times, provided a humanizing perspective on Rabbi Sacks as a complex and multifaceted individual. While I was aware of his love for music and good whiskey, I discovered through their stories that he also had a deep enjoyment of soccer, among other things. Lady Elaine’s presence at the start of the program was a beautiful reminder that we desired to honor a remarkable leader who was also a cherished husband, father, brother, and friend. 

It is crucial to always remember that our leaders are fundamentally human, no more and no less.

Pic: Yonit Schiller

(5) Assume Responsibility: The program urged us to confront urgent challenges head-on. We delved into diverse topics, including AI, political polarization, Jewish education, religious extremism, the Agunah crisis, antisemitism, Israel’s societal divisions, and interfaith dialogue, among others. The speakers did not sugarcoat the significant efforts required to propel our community forward. At times, it felt overwhelming to face one challenge after another, knowing that there were no easy solutions. Nevertheless, nearly every speaker, independent of the program organizers, stressed Rabbi Sacks’ teachings on assuming responsibility in tackling the most challenging of issues.

Especially in difficult times, leaders must embody covenantal responsibility and maintain hope amid adversity.

(6) Engage in Mahloket leShem Shamayim, Disagreements for the Sake of Heaven: Our journey began and concluded with encounters with two prominent Torah figures in Israel. We started by meeting Rabbi Asher Weiss, a distinguished Haredi posek and gadol, and concluded with Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi, a formidable powerhouse who has established and expanded palaces of Torah. Both shared insights into their unique leadership styles, the challenges within Jewish society, and their connections with Rabbi Sacks. It struck me how fitting it was to bookend the program with these two Jewish leaders, who operate in distinct spheres from Rabbi Sacks and hold diverse perspectives on various topics.

True courageous leadership embraces different viewpoints and the opportunity to learn from those we disagree with. 

Pic: Yonit Schiller

(7) Love Your Teachers: 

The program had a profound emotional impact, as described by Sacks Scholar Dr. Tanya White on her Facebook wall as a cathartic experience. We bonded deeply and quickly, blending together a range of intense emotions: solemn responsibility, grief, intellectual exploration, hope, and joyful silliness. I have never laughed so much in my life — discovering the incredible sense of humor among British Jews of the B’nei Akiva/Rabbi Sacks community. We laughed, we cried, and we laughed some more. And the extraordinary experience shed light on the reasons for my enduring grief. Many of us realized that we had been silently mourning the loss of Rabbi Sacks for years, often without a communal outlet. During those five days, we felt less alone. Our motivation to be Sacks Scholars stemmed from our genuine love for Rabbi Sacks and the fact that we miss him deeply, beyond what words can express.

Covenantal leadership emerges from a place of love for those whose path we follow.

* * *

In today’s world, these insights serve as vital reminders for those of us aspiring to be servant leaders and those of us who find inspiration in the life and work of Rabbi Sacks. One of our speakers remarked that we live in a dishonest world, and his words have echoed in my mind for the past few days. He is right. We live in a dishonest world, which can tempt us to become cynical. And when leaders succumb to cynicism, we risk losing essential qualities critical to lead, such as joy, hope, courage, and wonder.

Yet in this dishonest world, the Sacks Scholars program emerged as a countercultural gathering. I was deeply moved by the presence of humility, authentic sincerity, unwavering dedication, hope, gratitude, and a collective commitment to strengthening the bonds that unite us.

Perhaps the best way, then, to impart the principles of servant leadership is to empower individuals who view themselves as students.  Rather than idolizing Rabbi Sacks and perpetuating an unrealistic image of perfection, the program redirected our focus toward ourselves as his disciples, encouraging us to embrace leadership roles while drawing inspiration from his teachings. In the realm of leadership education and Jewish education at large, we can learn from this to shift the emphasis from “the making of a leader” to “the making of talmidim and talmidot” (disciples), fostering a blend of courage and humility. This connection to leadership through someone we revere, love, and miss might be the beating heart of servant leadership.

Pic: Yonit Schiller
Pic: Ingrid Muller
About the Author
Dr. Mijal Bitton is a Spiritual Leader and Sociologist. She is the Rosh Kehilla of the Downtown Minyan and a Visiting Researcher at NYU Wagner. Mijal is a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a New Pluralist Field Builder, a Maimonides Fund Fellow and a Sacks Scholar.
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