By Paul Bernstein
It is hard to put into words the shock, devastation, and sense of loss we all feel today as we reflect on the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l – scholar, teacher, and lover of humankind. I had the incredible privilege of having my Jewish life and education shaped by Rabbi Sacks, both in England and through his vocal support for Jewish day schools in North America, meeting with him in my role as the CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. That Rabbi Sacks believed in the power of Jewish schools was no secret – and his conviction that teachers are the “builders of the builders of the Jewish future” (Interview with Prizmah, 2018) will inspire the work of Jewish day school leaders and supporters for years to come.
Growing up in England, I was part of a small minority within our community who attended Jewish day school. Thanks to Rabbi Sacks’s instrumental leadership in building support for Jewish day schools and yeshivas, by the time my children started school in London (before we moved to the US), studying in a vibrant Jewish school had become the norm in the community.
In speaking with me in 2018, Rabbi Sacks shared the following about his experience building day schools in the UK: “We had 20 years of intense school-building in our community, and it was extraordinary. We went from 25 percent of kids at Jewish day schools to 70 percent of kids at Jewish day schools and really, really transformative experience. What did we discover from this? Number one, that the actual process of getting communities to build schools, built communities. Number two, the children of those schools are just more knowledgeable and committed than their parents, and they are the people who are bringing their parents closer to Judaism. I happen to find that very moving, because my late father, blessed memory, came from quite a poor immigrant family, and he had to leave school at the age of 14 and so he never had a Jewish education.”
Rabbi Sacks placed Jewish education, and Jewish day schools in particular, at the heart of the legacy he would create as Chief Rabbi. And, great educators were central to his vision. He asked me, “What is the greatest honor that we can possibly confer on anyone in the Jewish community? The greatest Jew we ever had was Moses. We called him Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher. For us, teachers are the most important people there are.”
Rabbi Sacks believed not only in the need for great educators – he spoke passionately about the need to support schools with resources as well. He told me, “The people who build and support Jewish day schools – they are the heroes of the Jewish world, because they are the builders of the Jewish future. … The very success of the Jewish people and surviving and thriving through all circumstances, some good, and some not so good, was due to the fact that we put education as the first of our [communal] priorities… The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Colosseum. Jews built schools. That’s why we’re still here, still strong, and still young while all those super powers in their day have been consigned to history.”
The wisdom and passion he shared for Jewish day schools expanded well beyond the realm of building Jewish communities. As is most often the case with Rabbi Sacks’s inspiring wisdom, his words spoken at a Prizmah gathering in late March, with over 700 Jewish day school leaders from around the world, are especially relevant today – just days after U.S. elections saw a country divided for months, if not years. In response to questions about lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, he spoke of the need and opportunity to use this moment to unify as a humankind: “Until now, every society has been changed by war. This is the first time all of humanity has faced a war that allows us to come together as human beings. There is no our side and theirs.”
Prizmah is the network for North American Jewish day schools, and we take seriously our role in deeping talent, catalyzing resources, and accelerating educational innovation in support of our schools. We know that this work will continue to connect Jews to their communities, their histories, and the world. It is our sincere hope that the legacy Rabbi Sacks built, which Prizmah will continue, towards the success of Jewish day schools will also serve to unify us through times of crisis and uncertainty. We must come together to support and care for one another, in order that we may merit beautiful times ahead.
In writing about this week’s parsha, Hayei Sara, in “Lessons of Leadership,” Rabbi Sacks described what made Abraham the first Jewish leader: “Leaders take responsibility for creating the conditions through which G-d’s purpose can be fulfilled… Leaders see the destination, begin the journey, and leave behind them those who will continue it. That is enough to endow a life with immortality.”
It is certain that Rabbi Sacks’s legacy and wisdom will guide the work of Prizmah and Jewish day schools for generations to come, and we are grateful to be surrounded by the many who work alongside us to build a community and a world worthy of his legacy.
Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.