Jonathan Sacks, who passed away in 2020, was a British rabbi, House of Lords member, educator and author with a towering reputation. Fewer than three years later, his teachings continue to impact people worldwide.
The Rabbi Sacks Legacy was set up after his untimely passing at 72. Its new Rabbi Sacks Scholars Programme affords those who had a personal connection with Sacks the chance to delve into his teachings through a series of seminars and a Jerusalem retreat. It has selected 27 scholars for a high-level Jewish educational and leadership initiative.
The program will also match each scholar with a mentor, who is an expert in leadership development, communication and new media.
Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, also announced last month that it will establish the Jonathan Sacks Institute, which will “ensure that Rabbi Sacks’ ideas receive the attention and recognition that they deserve within academia, through programs and research, especially as they relate to contemporary moral, social and political challenges.”
“Rabbi Sacks was a master communicator, distilling complex Jewish concepts into understandable insights for people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Joanna Benarroch, chief executive of the Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which is a nonprofit entity. “His timeless messages continue to inspire and guide communities of faith and society as a whole.”
The program will empower the late rabbi’s students to “share his philosophy with future generations,” added Benarroch.
The first cohort will include American, Canadian, British, South African, Australian and Israeli participants, who can then bring Sacks’ teachings back to communities worldwide.
‘Timeless messages and exceptional insights’
Seth Grauer, a rabbi and rosh yeshiva and head of school of the Bnei Akiva Schools in Toronto, told JNS he feels very privileged to be part of the new scholars program.
“It is a humbling and exciting opportunity to help perpetuate Rabbi Sacks’ memory and messages, which have become essential in our fractured world today,” he said.
Grauer met Sacks at a 2010 fundraising dinner for Yeshivat Har Etzion—a religious seminary in Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement in Gush Etzion, also known commonly as “Gush” of Yeshivat HaGush”—and the two had a close relationship thereafter.
“Like so many others, I quote him often in my educational and rabbinic work, and I am certain that this new program will help me better utilize his wisdom, timeless messages and exceptional insights to further grow as a Jewish educator, rabbi and communal leader,” he said.
The program starts with a retreat in Jerusalem to provide scholars with access to high-level Israeli leaders who are guided by Sacks’ philosophy that “leadership at its highest transforms those who exercise and those who are influenced by it.”
Mijal Bitton, rosh kehilla (“communal leader”) and co-founder of New York City’s Downtown Minyan and a Shalom Hartman Institute scholar-in-residence, is one of four scholars in the program who hails from New York. She met Sacks when he served as a visiting professor at New York University.
“Being included among his students in the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Scholars program is a humbling honor and a precious responsibility,” Bitton told JNS.
“I am eager to work together with other Jewish leaders to help promulgate his teachings,” she added, “and look forward to delving deep into his ideas and having the unique opportunity to better understand his mastery of Torah; his exceptional leadership; and the ways in which he delivered his transformative message to the Jewish community and the world.”
‘Develop a network of alumni with leadership potential’
Bar-Ilan hopes to do something similar with its new institute, which will aim to develop a “diverse network of alumni with leadership potential who can make a practical impact on the future of Israeli, Jewish and world society, inspired and guided by Rabbi Sacks’ vision,” it stated.
Jonathan Rynhold, who heads Bar-Ilan’s department of political studies, will serve as the institute’s academic director. The university is currently raising money for the institute with a planned opening in fall 2024, Rynhold told JNS.
Sacks’ influence extended beyond Judaism specifically and religion more broadly, Rynhold added, and it was “both timely and timeless.”
Even among the many great rabbinical minds, Sacks stood out for his development of “a body of thought deeply grounded in the Jewish religious tradition that speaks to the most important contemporary issues for Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Rynhold.
“Rabbi Sacks was deeply concerned with the threat to a free democratic society posed by rampant individualism on the one hand and religious extremism on the other,” he explained. “He argued that our ability to overcome these challenges depends on a civic culture that engages in debates with mutual respect—a moral ecology that provides hope and builds connections and trust between different communities.”
As leader of the institute, Rynhold plans to promote discussion of Sacks’ ideas in the academy and broader intellectual conversations in Israel and among Jews and non-Jews alike worldwide. He added that the institute will have bachelor’s level programming for outstanding students, as well as scholarships for master’s degree and doctoral level theses, as well as seminars, visiting lectureships and an annual prize for a leading public intellectual.
Said Rynhold: “We will also seek to develop a diverse network of alumni with leadership potential, who can have a practical impact in Israel, inspired and guided by Rabbi Sacks’s vision.”