Sharing personal memories of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The former UK chief rabbi was one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers in contemporary history

Tributes to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks poured in over the weekend after his death of cancer on Saturday at age 72. Leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Britain’s Prince Charles offered their condolences on the death of the former U.K. chief rabbi and intellectual giant.

Sacks, who served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 until 2013, became one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers in contemporary history. An advisor to numerous British prime ministers and other global leaders, Sacks was made a life peer in the House of Lords in 2009.

Jewish Insider interviewed Sacks twice over the past year, most recently to discuss his newest book, which was released in the U.S. in September. JI asked a range of Jewish community figures to share some of their personal experiences and memories of Sacks over the years. 

“On a jam-packed visit of impact and Torah to Boston once, I asked Rabbi Sacks if he would somehow find an hour to speak to a group of Israeli changemakers who were having an experience of growth at Harvard Business School. There were 45 diverse leaders — Arabs and haredim, religious and secular. Unfailingly the man of unrelenting mission, Rabbi Sacks graciously found an hour he did not have, and visited with the effect that was uniquely his — the glow of Torah, the light of erudition, the irresistible passion of true shlichut — and he lit up that group. His authentic Torah and his world-class intellectual span allowed him to teach, to impart, to inspire. He was a flame, lighting flames — he was the Halacha as per Shmuel in [the Talmudic tractacte of] Shabbat, that you can light from a light, that when you light from a light, the impact is light.

It was that day for that group from MAOZ. I heard sadness and poignant reflection from a national-religious mayor and a Bedouin Muslim activist today — both men were in that room five years ago, and each was feeling deep loss at the impossible news that the bright light that illuminated them, was no more. Sitting in the dark here in Jerusalem, mourning the loss of light.”

Jeff Swartz served as CEO of The Timberland Company for 15 years. He is the founder and current chairman of Maoz.

“I first met Rabbi Sacks at 20 years old, as a young, but opinionated, student activist from the U.K. He and Lady Elaine were hosting a reception to thank us for our efforts on behalf of the Jewish student body. Growing up in a non-Orthodox world, I wasn’t accustomed to the protocols around shaking hands. As Rabbi Sacks approached I put my hand out as had the rest of the receiving line. I realized as he came towards me that everyone else in the line was a man. I panicked, understanding my mistake, and put my hand behind my back. He — in an effort not to embarrass me — had put his hand out, and what followed was a very awkward dance until he dramatically put his hands behind his back and bowed and winked. This became our greeting ritual for the next years as I went on to become one of those who had the honor to provide him with security as a Community Security Trust volunteer and eventually one of his close protection officers.

Rabbi Sacks has continued to be a part of my professional and personal growth for the decade since; always being there to provide inspiration, but also strength. When I left a security shift as my grandmother had passed away, he called me before I had even arrived home to share his words of comfort. At business school, when they asked us to speak to five leaders who inspired us, for me he was top of this list. I expected a short note back and instead I got a 15-minute video which the professor then used for all of my fellow students as the start of the module. 

My last interaction with Rabbi Sacks was just three months ago, when I got to interview him over Zoom as a special session of The Kirsh Foundation’s Lockdown University in honor of my boss’s birthday. He was wearing his signature favorite yellow tie, this time one I had bought him as a gift. Like every moment I ever had with him, he left an imprint. I will carry his message from that session and his new book with me, ‘to live for the We rather than the I,’ a lesson for the ages.

Rabbi Sacks zt’l was an intellectual and spiritual giant. His reach extended far outside the Jewish world often being described by world leaders as their rabbi. He leaves a legacy immeasurable across society and we thank him for his extraordinary teachings, leadership and graciousness. We will treasure our memories and extend our deepest condolences to his family.” 

The Kirsh, Fisher and Mirels families

Carly Maisel is the global CEO of the Kirsh Foundation and is on the board of the Community Security Service and the Community Security Initiative.

“What I loved about Rabbi Sacks — like everyone, I enjoyed the wisdom and the way he connected old and new texts and showed how Judaism is respected, which is really rare today, unfortunately. Sometimes the media in Israel treats Judaism as a problem and not as a solution. But what he did was show how Judaism is the solution to the world’s problems, and how intelligent and how deep it is, and he reminded us of the treasure we have.

But what I loved was the creativity — he was a philosopher, a professor, a well-known lord, rabbi, chief rabbi — and all he wanted was to speak to me and to Ishay Ribo, four months ago. His office reached out to us, Ishay, a young Israeli singer, and me, I’m not a rebbetzin, I’m not a professor, I’m just an Israeli journalist trying to teach the parsha. And they tried to create that combination, that project, of the three of us together. And I loved that creativity, in a humble way, he said ‘yeah, I want to speak to young Jews from Israel, I want to get to know them.’ And it wasn’t like we were interviewing him, he was also listening to us. And I was surprised and also flattered — and I know Ishay also felt that way. In a way maybe that’s also part of the Jewish values we all share.

It’s our tradition — and each individual has his part. We say ‘Veten chelkeinu betoratecha’ — Hashem give us our piece, our part of the Torah, our portion. And even though you are a rav, professor and lord, each simple person on the street has his portion, which is not your portion. And he taught us to see our portion, not just to admire him, but to look out and seek and search for your portion, your part of the Torah, and develop it and learn it, to find your own connection.” 

Sivan Rahav Meir is an Israeli journalist, author, and commentator. In 2019, she was named by the Jerusalem Post as one the 50 most influential Jews.

“It is rare in life that an iconic figure proactively reaches out to you. That’s precisely the situation I found myself in during the waning days of my tenure at the White House in 2016. I had previously written a short tribute in the Jewish Book Council’s literary journal about the sustaining impact of Rabbi Sacks’s book, A Letter in the Scroll, on my religious identity. Having received an advanced copy of the journal, Rabbi Sacks’s office contacted me and graciously arranged for us to connect the following month on the margins of the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly.  

Within minutes of meeting, Rabbi Sacks kindly asked about my future plans amid the uncertainty of a presidential transition. I replied by quoting the first words of that week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, in which God instructs Abraham to “leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you.” At this crossroads, I admitted, I was unsure and uneasy about my next step. Rabbi Sacks paused. He pushed his furrowed brow inwards and stared at the ground. After a momentary silence, he lifted his head and answered, “Chanan — Avraham also did not know where that land would be or what would be there for him. But he took those first steps and ventured forward.”

Rabbi Sacks was one of Judaism’s most dynamic ambassadors — erudite and eloquent; impassioned and compassionate; melodic in his writing; Maimonidean in his teaching; transcendent in his connections within, across, and beyond faiths; and anchored in a deep reservoir of trenchant moral wisdom. His sudden passing leaves a gaping hole for generations of individuals worldwide who, like myself, took intellectual and theological comfort in his prolific profundity. Now, amid the long shadow of his premature death, it is easy, even natural, to lose one’s footing. But I have taken solace these last few days in Rabbi Sacks’s prescient reply four years ago. That, like the Biblical Abraham, we need to take those first steps and venture forward — now guided by the gifted legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory. 

Chanan Weissman is the former White House Jewish liaison during the Obama administration.

“Rabbi Sacks was the closest I ever came to having a Rebbe. For me, like so many others, reading his weekly commentary on the Torah portion was a central part of my regular Shabbat ritual. His analyses of each parsha — which I read and reread year after year — were beautifully written, always moving, and transformed my own understanding of the Torah and Judaism. 

Well beyond his enormous impact on the Jewish community, Rabbi Sacks became one of the most influential voices about Judaism to the broader world. At the core of his vast contributions to public life and discourse was his remarkable ability to create and communicate a compelling narrative — rooted in Torah — of respecting difference, compassion and understanding. 

This past September, a few days before Rosh Hashanah (and shortly before the announcement of his illness), I had the privilege of interviewing Rabbi Sacks at a UJA event about his new book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. I was hoping for the opportunity to follow up with him after the U.S. elections to get his take on the road to mending the divides in this country. He was by nature an optimist, and I know he would have been comforting. 

The world has lost one of the truly great Jewish leaders of our time. Yehi zichro baruch — and may his extraordinary scholarship inspire us for generations to come.”

Eric Goldstein is the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York. Before joining UJA, he was a partner in the New York office of Paul Weiss.

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