By: Ariel Kahan  | 

The Need for Values: Sacks-Herenstein Center Launches Inaugural Event With Bret Stephens

It was 8:05 a.m. on Sunday, April 3. I overheard a security guard tell a high school student from Yeshiva University High School for Boys, "Don't put your bag in the hallway — there’s an event today." 

This piqued my interest, and I walked into Lamport Auditorium, where many people were already working hard in preparation for the inaugural event for the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. To begin preparations, Dr. Erica Brown, the director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center, and her team, had gone to Lamport by 8 a.m., two hours before the event.

From the moment I walked into the auditorium, it was obvious that this was not a standard event or the launch of a standard new initiative. It would mark the beginning of something special. The birth of a center that would greatly impact YU with amazing programming and content for years to come. Although she was working feverishly, Brown gave me a few minutes of her precious time to answer questions about the event and the new center. 

Needless to say, the planning for the event did not begin at 8 a.m. on April 3. According to Brown, preparations for the event lasted for over three months. The event was put together by Brown, Senior Program Director for The Leadership Scholars program Aliza Abrams Konig and YU’s Office of Events.

The event team was interested in planning an event based on what the Herenstein family wanted, as they were dedicating the center as their brainchild. True to the mission of the new center, the Herensteins did not want a standard dinner — they wanted people to immerse themselves in a morning of study. After all, that's what Rabbi Sacks, who the new center is named after, would have wanted, I was told. 

The Herensteins grew close to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks after he spent a Shabbat at their home when he was a scholar-in-residence and maintained a close relationship with him for the rest of his life. Much of the program's aim was to paint a picture of Rabbi Sacks and his legacy, and included a video presentation by his daughter and a speech by his brother, who now resides in Israel. 

Brown, a former colleague of Bret Stephens, personally reached out to invite him to join the event and contribute to the discussion, demonstrating Brown’s and the center’s ability to bring in scholars and ideas that can have a tremendous impact on the YU community.

Both Brown and Stephens agreed that the program would go better as a relatively unscripted conversation. It was essential to Brown that, in addition to the room and externalities looking nice, the event itself needed to have a lot of content. After all, that is one of the main prerogatives of the Sacks-Hernestein Center-to deliver incredible intellectual depth and content to YU, Brown shared. 

Luckily, Stephens shared the same goal. When asked what he hoped to get out of the program, Stephens responded that he hoped to have "a great conversation that covered a wide range of issues that matter to this community as a university and as a Jewish community and an American one.” 

Indeed, there was a lot of content and relevant issues covered. The program began with opening remarks from Dr. Brown and then transitioned into a video with Gila Sacks, the daughter of Rabbi Sacks, who discussed her father's Pesach Seder and thoughts on the importance of freedom.

She was then followed by Alan Sacks, the brother of Rabbi Sacks, who was introduced by Dr. Shira Weiss, the assistant director of the center. Sacks spoke about many of the important lessons he learned from his brother, especially about leading by example. Sacks stated that his brother would be incredibly proud to see the development of the Sacks-Herenstein Center and would delight in its mission. 

Later that morning, President Ari Berman emphasized the importance of the mission, emphasizing that "as Jews, we need people to bring our values out to the world." Berman mentioned that in addition to simply fighting antisemitism and hate against Jews, which is certainly important, it is also crucial to demonstrate our values to the rest of the world. 

Berman's remarks were followed by a brief presentation about YU's humanitarian trip to Vienna, which the Herenstein family helped fund along with the new center. Aliza Abrams Konig then spoke about how driven she was to try to help the situation in Ukraine. She spoke about how YU planned the mission to Vienna under extreme time constraints, which they could only do with the help of the Herensteins. Konig’s speech was then complemented by the perspective of Romi Harcsztark (YC '23), a student who went on the mission. Harscztark discussed the importance of only being satisfied and comfortable if others are comfortable also. This mission was embodied by the Herensteins, he said, who did not relax while others were suffering. Instead of simply supporting the mission, the Herensteins went themselves on the plane. 

The presentation was followed by the highly anticipated conversation between Brown and Stephens. This sit-down was done in an interview format. Stephens was asked for his opinions and insights regarding a plethora of topics, including religious freedom, identity politics and his journeys and encounters with the world of Judaism. Among the many highlights from the dialogue was Stephens stating that "cancel culture" will end on its own the way the French Revolution ended, with those in charge being removed from positions of power. Stephens also emphasized the importance today of understanding key texts and sources when making an argument and not letting any particular narrative dictate that argument. Stephens ended his part of the program by emphasizing that it is now up to current YU students to change the world and that young people "have the potential to do great things."

The Herensteins were thrilled with the event and were tremendously grateful. Asked for a comment after the event, Mrs. Terry Herenstein simply responded, "Once again, Erica Brown was at the pinnacle of being the ultimate director and leader, and we are honored and thrilled to be a part of YU and the Sacks-Herenstein Center, and we hope to see amazing things from the amazing students.”

Brown expressed to me that if she wanted everyone from the event to leave with one takeaway, it would be that "Pesach enabled us to express our religious freedom, which is foundational to a democratic society, and we should use the platform of democracy to express our religious identities with pride. That was singular to Rabbi Sacks' legacy, to be mekadesh shem shamayim.” 

The event on Sunday was representative of what is to come from this new center — tremendous content and opportunities that YU has never seen before. 

Photo Caption: Stephens and Brown at the event on Sunday

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University