To School or To Shul? That is the Question: Twenty-five Minutes in a Car with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

RabbiSacksWhere can one make a greater impact – in a day school or a synagogue?

By Rabbi Eddie Shostak

On his recent whirlwind trip to Montreal, I was asked to drive Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to a speaking engagement for NCSY Montreal. After taking a breath of exhilaration, I humbly accepted the opportunity to spend twenty-five minutes in a car with one of my greatest living heroes.

My first task was to carefully convert our family minivan into a royal stagecoach fit for a Lord and his Lady. During the overhaul, which included dismounting four car seats, eliminating remnant and dispersed Cheerios, while discovering “fun” surprises, I contemplated what my personal objectives would be for this unique journey.

I came up with the following: First, get Rabbi Sacks, together with his wife, Lady Elaine and his attaché, to their destination on time and in one piece. Second, get a picture together with the Rabbi as a personal memento. Third, have the Rabbi inscribe one of my favourite of his books (Lessons in  Leadership) as a gift to a dear friend. And lastly, ask Rabbi Sacks one good question.

The anticipated morning arrived and I traveled to downtown Montreal just after sunrise. I stood anxiously in the lobby of their hotel and as the elevator doors opened, I felt truly humbled by Rabbi Sacks’ warm greetings as I escorted the group to the car.

After some initial conversation about the coming day’s events and Montreal’s Jewish community, I asked my question: Where can one make a greater impact – in a day school or a synagogue?

Rabbi Sacks paused, and rejecting the simple binary option offered, said: “Without question one can make the most impact on day schools, communities should have their primary focus on day schools, BUT in partnership with strong synagogues.”

A diplomatic answer, perhaps, but one also begging to be unpacked. He said that shuls are where day school graduates are integrated into the community, and their strength will help determine the success of the day school experience.

Rabbi Sacks then shared two anecdotes. The first was that in the mid-19th century when Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was invited to become Rabbi of a community in Germany, he was asked to build a new synagogue. He refused and declared: “First I will build a school, THEN I will build the shul.” And so he did, building the famed Realschule in Frankfurt.

The second, observation was more personal. In 1983, he was to be appointed Rabbi of the prestigious West Marble Arch Synagogue in London. Rabbi Sacks was told that he would have to give up teaching at Jews College, the oldest rabbinical school in the world. Not wanting to leave teaching behind, he sought his Rabbi’s advice. His Rabbi answered matter-of-factly: “And why can’t you do BOTH?” And so it was, Rabbi Sacks assumed the post of senior Rabbi and became Principal of Jews College in 1984.

The lesson: if our shuls are going to be successful, our schools need to be successful. And if our schools are going to be successful, our shuls need to be successful. Not independently, but IN PARTNERSHIP.

I considered Rabbi Sacks’ suggestion. Initially, a number of missed opportunities came to mind.

  • In day schools, our tefila programs aim to go beyond keva (form) and focus on proper meaning, kavana (intention), and enthusiasm. Often when our students come to shul, prayers feel flat, without life and lacking in dignity. Our synagogues often don’t look and feel like what is experienced in day schools.
  • There is also a perceived gap between school-honored values of Torah Lishma (study for its own sake) and lively discussion. Often our shul lectures are sparsely attended, Torah reading time is noisy, and crowds empty out during the Haftarah. Children who perceive being deceived by not experiencing in practice the theory they are taught in school, are less likely to become excited about their Judaism.

Rabbi Sacks’ advocacy for partnership stimulated three ideas for strengthening the relationship between schools and synagogues to secure a more engaged, active and enthusiastic next generation of Jews.

  • Parents as teachers: In his evening talk hosted by Federation CJA, Rabbi Sacks quoted Rabbi Moshe Alshich who asked: “How do we act in order to succeed in educating our children?” And answered: “It is what you love that your children will learn to love.” Rabbi Sacks continued: “It is the way your life reflects your loves, those are the things that our children will absorb and eventually make their own.” Parents must say and do, but it is by reflecting our love for Jewish life and practice, that our children will choose to commit to become engaged and enthusiastic Jews.
  • Meaningful interaction between professional and lay leadership of schools and synagogues: Synagogue leaders need to know what is going on in their members’ schools and school leaders need to know what is going on in their students’ synagogues. Many synagogue professionals, including Rabbis, and even more so lay leaders, have either only visited their own children’s school, and therefore have only seen schools from a “parent lens.” What if synagogue professionals and lay leaders went on official school tours of their members’ schools observing them through a “synagogue lens?” And vice versa. This could be one way to gain knowledge on what they need to produce in order to close the “shul-school partnership” gap.
  • Day schools and communal responsibility : In 2011, a day school parent and former synagogue board chair in Hollywood, Florida, convinced his synagogue to allocate $30,000 (which was immediately matched 1:1 by a donor) to day schools. Each school would receive an annual per capita distribution based on the number of students enrolled who were also members of his synagogues (see “Synagogues and Day Schools Sitting in a Tree” by Charles Cohen). I know of other communities that have duplicated this type of financial investment. It is truly an expression of “putting your money where your mouth is” in investing in our future. Investment in synagogue programming for youth is important, but study after study has also shown that Jewish engagement is dependent more than ever on day school education.

The last verses of the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:23-24), which are the culmination of the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach, tell us of the task of Elijah the Prophet, the herald of the ultimate redemption: “v’heshiv lev avot al banim, v’lev banim al avotam – He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

In his closing remarks to an audience of over 1300 in Montreal, Rabbi Sacks shared a story about his father, an immigrant to Britain who had to leave school at a young age in order to help support his family. Rabbi Sacks recalled walks home with his father from synagogue as a as a child. He would ask his father questions about Judaism – Why this? And why that? And his father would answer the same answer every time: “I never had a Jewish education, so I cannot answer your questions. But, one day you will have the education that I never had and when that will happen, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”

Rabbi Sacks underscored the importance of focusing on day school education in securing the Jewish future while challenging us to think about their partnerships and inter-dependent relationships with synagogues and parents so that children see a love of Judaism in all walks of their life.

Clearly, my twenty-five minute ride with Rabbi Sacks was a dream come true, exceeding my expectations. His words have inspired me to engage in this dialogue with the larger community. And, by the way, I got the Rabbi to his speaking engagement on time and unharmed, I got my treasured picture with him, Rabbi Sacks inscribed the book for my friend, and though I think I asked a pretty good question, I got an even better answer.

Rabbi Eddie Shostak serves as Rav-Mechanech at Hebrew Academy Montreal Elementary School, Israel Advisor and Judaics teacher in the High School, and Director of Education at Congregation TBDJ. He is currently a fellow (cohort 9) in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.