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Scholars seek to promote universal legacy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Twenty-six educators from six countries gathered in Jerusalem for a four-day conference aimed at bringing the former British chief rabbi's philosophy to the next generation.

Scholars from around the world attend a conference in Jerusalem to further the legacy of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, together with his wife, Lady Elaine Sacks (front row, center). Photo: Yonit Schiller.
Scholars from around the world attend a conference in Jerusalem to further the legacy of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, together with his wife, Lady Elaine Sacks (front row, center). Photo: Yonit Schiller.

More than two-dozen Jewish scholars from around the world have gathered in Jerusalem to honor the legacy of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, as the next generation of educators works to merge Judaism with contemporary world challenges.

The four-day conference, which got underway Tuesday evening, comprises 26 educators from six countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Israel and Australia, who all shared a personal connection with Rabbi Sacks.

“Rabbi Sacks called for a Judaism engaged with the world, a Judaism that addresses issues of global importance,” said Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, the program director. “We are taking his inspirational work and bringing it to the next generation as they face contemporary world challenges.”

Sacks, who passed away in 2020, was an English Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian and author who served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for nearly a quarter century from 1991 to 2013.

The inaugural event seeks to serve as a launching pad to cultivate a network of Rabbi Sacks-inspired scholars around the globe guided by his philosophy that leadership transforms both those who exercise it and those who are influenced by it, event organizers said.

“Rabbi Sacks’ thoughts and leadership far transcend his immediate community and had a global impact,” said Joanna Benarroch, chief executive of the Rabbi Sacks Legacy. “This week we brought together his students who are leaders in their communities for an intensive conference to discuss how to continue to share his wisdom with people around the world.”

The sessions include panel discussions, lectures and roundtable discussions across the city peppered with quintessential Rabbi Sacks philosophical topics such as “Judaism, Humanity and the Cosmos: Moral Philosophical and Technical Challenges.”

A vision of Judaism for all streams

“Rabbi Sacks offered a vision of Judaism that not only could compete with secular culture but could be a model for all communities,” said Mijal Bitton, who serves as the communal leader of the Downtown Minyan in New York City and is one of the scholars on the program.

The Argentinian-born Bitton, 33, who grew up in Israel and the United States, is the daughter of the former chief rabbi of Uruguay and serves as the director of the first national study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the United States.

“I do think that Sephardic traditionalism offers a way forward for Jews trying to live in a liberal secular world,” she told JNS. Quoting the Polish American rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heschel, she added:  ‘We don’t need more textbooks. We need more text people.’”

Countering mainstream American Judaism of ‘lox and bagels’

Bitton said that “thin Judaism” of “lox and bagels with a Seinfeld identity” encapsulates most American Jews who, surveys show, face increasing assimilation, with more than two out of three intermarrying.

“We have not made a good enough case to offer a compelling Judaism to these people,” said Bitton. “They are not guided to a place where they feel needed.”

While demurring on the subject of intermarriage, the young mother of two, who herself married the son of Egyptian refugees, said that those who are active in the community, such as at her “orthodox with an egalitarian aesthetic” New York congregation of young professionals, are “thirsty for meaning and eager for belonging.”

“The young generation gets a bad reputation, but you should not assume that the loudest voice on Twitter represents them,” she added.

A lasting legacy and impact

She was able to spend time with Rabbi Sacks over Shabbat when he was based at New York University, interactions which she called “the greatest privilege of my life.”

“Rabbi Sacks’ vision shows that he was not afraid to engage in difficult ideas and shows that our tradition has what it takes to be innovative for the world at large,” she said.

“My family and I are so appreciative of these wonderful educators from around the world who are committed to transmitting the Torah of my dear husband,” said Lady Elaine Sacks at the opening event. “They will be able to share his teachings with even more people, particularly with the next generation, adding to his legacy and impact.”

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