Lessons in Spiritual Mentorship: A Personal Reflection on the Legacy of Rabbi Lord Sacks z”l
My friends would call me his “squire.” In 2013, I was asked by then YU President Richard Joel to arrange and oversee Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ tenure as the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. Over the three years I spent working closely with Rabbi Sacks in this capacity, in the courses he co-taught with Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik at Stern College for Women and Yeshiva College and at countless guest lectures, major conferences and community Shabbatons, I was blessed to experience his greatness up close.
Welcoming Rabbi Sacks to a crowd of 1,100 people who had packed the main sanctuary to hear his guest drasha during a YU Shabbaton, one of the local rabbis quipped that he was proud that Rabbi Sacks could see how many people normally show up to one of that rabbi’s own drashot on a typical Shabbat. In my own community in Englewood, NJ, the crowd was so large during one of Rabbi Sacks’ talks that a congregant joked that we might as well take out the sifrei Torah and start saying Kol Nidrei, since the shul attendance that day was matched only by that during Yom Kippur. Drawing millions of viewers, listeners and readers to his lectures, videos, podcasts and books, Rabbi Sacks was a master educator and source of inspiration to Jews and non-Jews alike.
And yet, despite being the closest Modern Orthodoxy has had to a “rockstar rabbi,” despite the best-selling books, despite his serving as an unmatched spokesperson for Judaism on the world stage offering insight and inspiration to political, religious and industry leaders, despite being awarded 18 honorary degrees and winning numerous international prizes and accolades, Rabbi Sacks had an insatiable appetite for mentorship. Of crucial importance to him during his time at YU, as a visiting faculty member at NYU and throughout his career, was hearing from, learning from, and encouraging young people.
Countless aspiring Jewish educational leaders have reflected on social media how much his words meant to them and invigorated them. His thoughtful guidance and chizzuk, offered in one-on-one meetings, in inscriptions in one of his dozens of books or shared on walks to and from shuls in communities he was visiting, came alongside a sincere and passionate curiosity for what these individuals were themselves learning and grappling with. His was a generosity of spirit that no one would have faulted him for setting aside given the extent of his professional obligations. And yet, on train rides to and from guest lectures, he would ask me to share with him what shiurim I was preparing, which books I was reading and what I thought about whatever was in the news that day. He and his wonderful wife Lady Elaine Sacks sent gifts for my newborn twins, despite their birth occurring after the Sacks’ had returned back to England following his visiting professorship. He also called to wish me the best of luck on my first day as a member of President Ari Berman’s new administration in 2017.
For years, both prior to and following his official teaching at YU, he felt a deep kinship with YU and a commitment to the spiritual flourishing of its students and community members. In a 1997 commencement address, he remarked that there is “only one group of people” who can heal the fractures within the Jewish community. “Graduates of Yeshiva University … almost alone in today’s Jewish world, have learned to combine Torah and chochma, to integrate yeshiva and university.” YU students are uniquely positioned to balance serving as “citizens of the universal enterprise of mankind” while being “Jews, heirs to the greatest heritage ever conferred upon a people.” He received YU’s Lamm Prize in 2010, and his keynote addresses assured the crowd that “there is not one challenge out there in the world today — moral, philosophical, political or societal — that we cannot face with total confidence that “Moshe emet ve-Torato emet.” In recent years, he continued to speak at many major communal events on YU’s campuses during his brief stays in the US, and this past January, he and Lady Sacks were kind enough to welcome a group of Straus Center students into their home for an unforgettable visit.
Much has already been written, and no doubt exponentially more will be said in the coming weeks, months and years, about Rabbi Sacks’ communal leadership, depth of knowledge, eloquence and prolific output, which reached more individuals across the globe than any one Torah teacher in history. But what I will treasure most from our years together is the friendship he showed me and the entire Yeshiva University enterprise. He encouraged us, rooted for us, taught us and learned with us, inspiring us to fully realize the life-changing ideas of our tradition and our individual and collective potential.
Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern is senior advisor to the provost and senior program officer of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
Photo Caption: From left to right: Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern, senior advisor to the provost of YU; Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former president and chancellor of YU and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
Photo Credit: Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern