Learning for A Legend:
Honoring Rabbi Sacks z”l

By Dr. Darin S. Katz, Amira Soleimani, and Rabbi David Fain

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, believed Jewish education to be the highest communal priority, and he regarded teachers as the “builders of the future.” To honor his memory, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit held a Day of Learning on Tuesday, December 8, to mark the end of shloshim (30-day period of mourning), following Rabbi Sacks’ death on November 8, 2020.

The day’s goals were threefold: to teach students about Rabbi Sacks’ life and legacy; to teach about the shloshim period and the concept that Torah study merits the soul of the deceased; and to use selected quotes as prompts to discuss Jewish values, one’s relationship with God, forgiveness, and gratitude. For example, during their “morning meeting,” first and second graders discussed Rabbi Sacks’ words on “what it means to give, take and share, to challenge, rebel, make mistakes, to forgive and be forgiven, to argue and make up.”

Fifth through eighth graders discussed the challenge of hearing God, “the music of all that lives,” as Rabbi Sacks put it, “at times when all we hear is noise.”

Fifth grader Elie Brode interpreted the remarks in this way: “Music is your happy place, but noise stops you from getting there. Earlier in the year during quarantine, that period of time was all noise, so you couldn’t see your friends or do anything. But if you looked, there was still music, and you just had to find it, six feet away. That’s what I think he meant.”

Teachers were moved by what students revealed: that students feel a connection to God during tefillot, while reading Torah, when digging deep to solve a problem, and in small moments during difficult times.

“It was really beautiful to see the meaningful conversations on a wide range of subjects that were engendered by reading Rabbi Sacks’ writing,” said Dr. Josh Cutler, a seventh and eighth grade history teacher. “From appreciating goodness in classmates to how being a part of the Hillel family has helped shape us.”

Judaic Studies teacher Clara Gaba was reminded of a quote attributed to another great scholar, Dr. Chaim Ginot, a pioneer in communication techniques to reach children. “He said, ‘Children are like wet cement, whatever falls on them makes an impression.’ Our Day of Learning in honor of Rabbi Sacks z”l, who was unfamiliar to many students, made an impression on them: by his example, they learned the value of studying Torah.”

It is our hope that the Day of Learning strengthens our students’ ideals and identity, and that they partner with God to improve the world, as Rabbi Sacks z”l did. May his towering wisdom continue to inspire our sacred work at Hillel Day School and at Jewish day schools around the world today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Dr. Darin S. Katz is Head of School, Amira Soleimani, Director of Judaic Studies Instruction and Curriculum, and Rabbi David Fain, Rav Beit Hasefer, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.