Opinion: From followers to leaders: Rabbi Sacks’ enduring legacy

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Opinion: From followers to leaders: Rabbi Sacks’ enduring legacy

Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein was one of 8 women amongst the first cohort of 26 Jewish educators and communal professionals in Jerusalem last week for an immersive learning experience led by The Rabbi Sacks Legacy

Joanne Greenaway, Rachel Fink, Nicky Goldman, Sarah Robinson, Mijal Bitton, Hadas Hershkovitz, Yafit Clymer, Miriam Feldman-Kaye, Tanya White, Ilana Epstein, Abi Keene. The 8 women of the first cohort of Sacks Scholars, 2023
Joanne Greenaway, Rachel Fink, Nicky Goldman, Sarah Robinson, Mijal Bitton, Hadas Hershkovitz, Yafit Clymer, Miriam Feldman-Kaye, Tanya White, Ilana Epstein, Abi Keene. The 8 women of the first cohort of Sacks Scholars, 2023

Last week, I had the privilege of joining 25 other leaders on a profoundly transformative journey that has the potential to change the course of my life. While it may sound like an overstatement, this experience is my current truth.

As a community, we suffered a devastating loss in November 2020. The passing of Rabbi Sacks left us stunned and bereaved. Although we were not his family, who experienced his loss in a different way, we were his students and the leaders he nurtured.

In the corporate world, there is a concept known as the ‘Key Man Strategy’. When a driving force, the heart and soul of an organization, is no longer present, how does one carry on? During Rabbi Sacks’ lifetime, we recognized his vital role in our religious and moral lives. He became our voice when we were speechless, and our solace in times of despair. In a spiritually desolate world, Rabbi Sacks led us to intellectual and compassionate waters, guiding us with his wisdom, consideration, and kindness.

Joanne Greenaway, Chief Executive of the London School of Jewish Studies (left) walking with Ilana Epstein, Rebbetzin Marble Arch Synagogue, in the JNF UK Sacks Forest. Pic: Ingrid Muller

And then, one day, silence fell upon us.

Rabbi Sacks was gone, and our anchor was yanked away.

From the depths of sorrow emerges hope.

“Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible may not be an optimistic book, but it is undoubtedly one of the great works of hope.” (To Heal a Fractured World, p. 166)

Rabbi-Sacks Scholars. Pic: Stand-With-Us

Under the leadership of Joanna Benarroch and with the support of the Sacks family, the Rabbi Sacks Legacy established the Sacks Scholars program.

Led by the talented Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, the programme’s development began a year ago. With a remarkable staff in America, England, and Israel, they meticulously crafted a unique program.

The first crucial step was selecting the inaugural cohort of scholars. Each of us shared a personal connection with Rabbi Sacks, and our encounters with him had a profound impact on the trajectory of our lives. In various ways, he urged us to step up and embrace active leadership roles, and we answered his call.

Pic Credit: Ingrid Muller

The Sacks Scholars program aims to propel each of us to the next level. Rabbi Sacks set us on a course, and now his legacy is positioned to see us fulfil the potential he saw in us.

During our time in Jerusalem, we had the privilege of meeting leaders from various fields, including intellectual and religious giants, an Israeli music sensation, political commentators, and policymakers. We explored sites that have yet to be opened to the public, the Museum of Tolerance, and the New National Library of Israel. Through these experiences, we are being equipped to comment on the spiritual trajectory of our communities.

While the first five days were undeniably life-changing, the real challenge lies ahead. Each scholar will spend the next year working on an individual project aimed at further spreading Rabbi Sacks’ ideas. By combining our own voices with his profound insights, we aspire to ensure that his words and spirit endure.

I once heard that Rabbi Sacks wrote more in his lifetime than the revered Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon – Maimonides) did. Even 800 years later, we continue to discuss the Rambam. May the same be true for Rabbi Sacks. We are committed to sharing his Torah and ideas for generations to come, and the establishment of the Sacks Scholars programme is a crucial step toward ensuring that his teachings are heard and embraced far and wide.

  • Ilana Epstein is Rebbetzin at Western Marble Arch synagogue. 
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