When former United Kingdom Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks died Nov. 7, JewishColumbus CEO Joel Marcovitch witnessed the world darken.
Marcovitch, who grew up in London while Sacks was chief rabbi for 22 years, had met the prolific author and speaker on Orthodox Judaism numerous times while working for Jewish federations in America.
“Have you ever entered a room and there’s clearly someone there who’s on a completely different level? With Rabbi Sacks, you just felt like you were in the presence of greatness,” said Marcovitch about Sacks, who died at age 72 during a third bout with cancer, which he had announced last month.
“He was just an unbelievable thinker and a thought partner, not only for the Jewish community, but also he was a regular on British television, on radio, working with the community to talk about some very deep and meaningful impacts of just anything from morality to the way that we should be looking at the world, to the secular community, to the non-Jewish community.”
Marcovitch told the CJN Nov. 9 he personally considered Sacks an intellectual role model, but for the UK, Marcovitch said he believed Sacks to have been a spokesperson.
He regularly provided his intellect to the British public through a BBC segment he produced, and he spoke around the world.
Sacks fought anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, working to create change with his words. In 2018, he labeled previous Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn an “anti-Semite,” which led the way for current British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to harshly condemn the Labour Party, a precedent-setting event in British Jewish life.
Sacks was also vocal in his opposition to the forces that lead to anti-Semitism on the far left and the far right, as he wrote in a JTA op-ed in January.
“Anti-Semitism has little to do with Jews – they are its object, not its cause – and everything to do with dysfunction in the communities that harbor it,” Sacks wrote.
In a widely circulated YouTube video posted in 2017, Sacks called anti-Zionism a new form of anti-Semitism, arguing that it denies Jews the “right to exist collectively with the same rights as everyone else.”
The video was based on a 2016 speech Sacks delivered in Brussels, which is widely seen as having paved the way for Great Britain’s adoption later that year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.
“He was out there talking about how we have to defeat all types of hatred, all types of bigotry, and he was incredibly powerful in that,” Marcovitch said.
Sacks’ firm beliefs echoed Marcovitch’s, and they appear in how Marcovitch leads himself and JewishColumbus, he said.
“He was all about community. He really didn’t care what your background was, if you had the means or if you didn’t have the means,” Marcovitch said. “What he cared about was the individual. That’s very much the same philosophy as I have and the same philosophy as JewishColumbus – we are here for the individual needs of those in our community who need our help.”
Sacks was the featured speaker at the 2016 Spring Gala at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Beachwood before a sold-out crowd of more than 800. It was then that Stephen H. Hoffman, former president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was asked if the Federation would like to host Sacks the next day. Hoffman, who had first become familiar with Sacks’ commentary on the prayer book upon his visits to Israel, immediately agreed.
Hoffman compared Sacks to the late Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his written recordings. He explained Wiesel is regarded as a moral voice in the Jewish world, tackling issues of Judaism and humanity.
“I think Rabbi Sacks was looked to in a similar way in recent years because he was very wise,” Hoffman told the CJN Nov. 9. “His values were deeply grounded in Jewish thought, and he was able to bring a particular Jewish view to universal challenges. He did it articulately, with passion and compassion, and people were interested to know what he thought. He also served as a bit of a branch between traditional Judaism and the rest of the streams.”
Thankful for his extensive publishings, Hoffman urged the world to turn to Sacks’ writings and continue to learn.
“I think our world would be well served if people read his books and used his philosophy and his teachings to formulate their own approaches to our fellow human beings, especially in times like these with the virus raging and us needing to take better care of one another,” Hoffman said. “I think we can find comfort and motivation in his writings.”
To Marcovitch, Sacks was “a mensch of a guy who would do anything for you,” who maintained humbleness with an immeasurable amount of knowledge.
“We were told that in every generation, there are always luminaries. He for sure – his body of work, the life he lived and what he stood for – was an incredibly huge light,” Marcovitch said. “His passing is a message for all of us: if we can all try and emulate just a fraction of what Rabbi Sacks stood for, then the world would be a better place.”
Born in London in 1948, Sacks studied at Cambridge University in the UK. While a student there in the 1960s, he visited Rabbi Menachem Schneerson – the spiritual leader who is credited with turning the Chasidic Chabad-Lubatvitch movement into a powerful organizing force of Jewry around the world – in New York City. Sacks credits that meeting with inspiring him to get involved with Jewish studies, as he detailed in a series of videos for Chabad.org in 2011.
He became the rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue in London’s most Orthodox neighborhood in the late 1970s, and then rabbi of the Marble Arch synagogue in central London. He also became a member of the House of Lords.
Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine, three children and several grandchildren.
JTA contributed to this report.