With pomp and ceremony, the Los Angeles Modern Orthodox community in Pico-Robertson welcomed the British Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Lady Elaine Sacks for a full weekend of appearances Feb. 3-5.
Sacks responded to the pageantry with enough warmth, graciousness and inspiration to shatter all preconceptions of British stiffness and titled aloofness.
“I thought I would never be able to relate to him, but he was very real. He just talked to people, and in his speech he made a lot of connections to the real world,” said Liberty Fuchs, an eighth-grader at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where Sacks kicked off his visit on Friday morning.
The school spearheaded and organized the “Weekend of Jewish Unity,” working with five synagogues for a schedule that brought nearly a dozen rabbis onto one bimah and standing-room-only crowds to services Friday night at Congregation Bnai David-Judea, Saturday morning at Beth Jacob Congregation and Saturday afternoon at Young Israel of Century City. On Sunday, Sacks attended and spoke at a morning service that blended Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions at Mogen David Congregation, and was the keynote speaker at the dedication of a new building for Young Israel of North Beverly Hills.
The weekend culminated at Hillel’s scholarship banquet Sunday night at the Westin Bonaventure, where Sacks gave a spirited endorsement of Jewish education to the 700 parents and supporters of the Modern Orthodox preschool-to-eighth grade day school.
Sacks was accompanied on his visit by the Shabbaton Choir, a 26-member choral group from London, who enhanced services on Shabbat and performed at the Sunday night banquet. Choir co-founder Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, cantor and rabbi at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London, and Jonny Turgel, cantor at the Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue near London — the largest Orthodox synagogue in Europe – were the featured soloists, under the leadership of musical director Stephen Levey.
The choir’s presence highlighted a major point for the Chief Rabbi, as Sacks made song one of his central messages throughout the weekend. On Friday night, he spoke of the need to bring song — literally and metaphorically — back into a Judaism that has become too cognitive, “which is English for boring,” he said. When Jews speak, they argue, he repeated at several points over the weekend, but when they sing, they sing together.
“Sometimes Judaism can become overly intellectual, but sometimes the heart must sing,” he said in an interview. “The renewal of Judaism can come about through renewal of music as easily as by anything else.”
Founded in 1989, the choir melds styles ranging from 18th and 19th century traditional chazzanut (cantorial liturgy) with cathedral-like harmonies, to the folksy tunes of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, to original works composed for the choir. Angelenos unaccustomed to choirs in shul responded with enthusiasm to the quiet emotion and spirited celebration the choir evoked.
The Shabbaton Choir also sang with the Hillel student choir on Friday morning and at the Sunday night gala, and added “God Save the Queen” to the usual lineup of “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Students at Hillel had been prepping for months for the Chief Rabbi’s visit, listening to his lessons on YouTube and authoring their own poems, essays and illustrations on Jewish unity, which they presented to Sacks in a book during his Friday visit to the school.
Sacks later said he was impressed by the depth of knowledge and faith the students showed both in the book and in his personal encounters with them.
“I think the enduring memory of this trip that I’m going to have is of the children. I haven’t seen children like this. The big cities, the consumer society can make them world-weary, a little bit materialistic and a little bit cynical. The kids here have not been like that,” Sacks said in an interview.
The Hillel students weren’t sure what to expect from someone with the title “Lord” — some nursery-schoolers thought they were going to meet God himself. Preschoolers and elementary students greeted Sacks with Hebrew songs of welcome as he came in, flanking his path and waving British, American and Israeli flags. Sacks not only sang and clapped with them but squatted down beside them and waved a flag himself, delighting the children.
Sacks invited participation during his talk with the Hillel students, and he told stories and humorous anecdotes while delivering a message about looking toward God in order to see the Divine image in humans.
He later had an intimate meeting with school principals and congregational rabbis and then held a Q-and-A with Hillel eighth-graders and high-school students from four Jewish high schools around the city.
In his sermon Saturday morning, Sacks compared the Israelites’ unexpected victory over the Egyptians during the Exodus to modern Israel’s victory over combined Arab armies in 1967, saying that the true miracle in both events was that human pretentiousness fell to those who had faith in God and were able to look toward a future without hatred. He criticized the troubled Arab Spring as a movement that has been unsuccessful because it has not yet let go of hatred.
Sacks echoed the same theme in his talk on education at the Hillel gala Sunday night, saying that the Jewish focus on educating children, and on the future, ensures its success, while a focus on the quarrels of the past will mire any advance toward freedom.
“To defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need schools,” he said.
Sacks enlivened all his speeches with references both to the current political and intellectual leaders with whom he converses, as well as to centuries’ worth of literary, historical and scientific giants that he draws upon to build his points. One of the main messages he wanted to drive home, Sacks said, was that only by living fully in both worlds — living a life of Torah while drinking from and contributing to the bounty of secular offerings — can both Torah and secular knowledge be complete.
“I’m constantly reading across different secular disciplines, whether economics or sociology or neuroscience. Every single one of these discoveries teaches me something I didn’t know about Torah,” Sacks said in an interview, echoing a theme he brought up at a Saturday afternoon talk.
Sacks has authored 24 books, some of them expounding on broad social issues such as global ethics, multiculturalism or education; eight of his books have been serialized in British newspapers.
Hillel conceived of the Chief Rabbi’s visit after Uri Harkham, a longtime supporter of the school, connected Hillel head of school Rabbi Boruch Sufrin with Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld in London.
Sufrin constructed a vision that would bring congregational rabbis on board and offer Sacks an impressive display of collaboration and the chance to impact the entire community.
Sufrin also agreed with Rosenfeld’s imperative that the Shabbaton Choir be included, which turned the weekend into a full-blown event. Uri Harkham and his family foundation, along with the Sunny and Debbie Sassoon and Mitchell and Joleen Julis families, sponsored the weekend.
Sufrin, who grew up in the London suburb of Ilford, declined to say what it cost to bring in the rabbi, the choir and accompanying family members — close to 40 people. But he said the event has raised nearly double what the banquet usually does, going a long way toward meeting the school’s annual fundraising goal of $700,000 to $1 million, most of that for scholarships.
The school, which has a budget of $7 million and around 600 students, is in the second phase of a long-term strategic plan, and Sufrin believes the weekend helped raise the school’s stature in the community.
But, mostly, Sufrin said, he was motivated by the opportunity to offer students a living exemplar of the school’s guiding vision.
“Hillel’s mission is to be a religious Zionist school in a nurturing environment that empowers students to live a full Modern Orthodox life. Rabbi Sacks is a role model who has reached the top, whom our students can look up to and say that is something to aspire to,” Sufrin said.