On his recent whirlwind trip to Montreal, I was asked to drive Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to a speaking engagement. After taking a breath of exhilaration, I humbly accepted the opportunity to spend 25 minutes in a car with one of my greatest living heroes.
As I carefully converted our family minivan into a royal stagecoach, dismounting four car seats and eliminating remnant Cheerios, I contemplated what my objectives would be for this unique journey. I came up with the following:
First, get Rabbi Sacks, together with his wife and his attaché, to their destination on time and in one piece. Second, get a picture together with the rabbi as a personal memento. Third, have the rabbi inscribe one of my favourite of his books, Lessons in Leadership. And lastly, ask Rabbi Sacks one good question.
Morning arrived and I traveled downtown just after sunrise. I stood anxiously in the lobby of the hotel. The elevator doors opened, Rabbi Sacks greeting me warmly, and I escorted the group to the car. After some initial conversation about the coming day’s events and Montreal’s Jewish community, I asked my question: where can one make a greater impact on Jewish lives – in a day school or at a synagogue?
Rabbi Sacks paused before rejecting the simple binary offered: “Without question, one can make the most impact in day schools,” he said. “Communities should have their primary focus on day schools, but in partnership with strong synagogues.”
Then, the rabbi shared two anecdotes. The first was that in the mid-19th century, when Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was invited to become rabbi of a community in Germany, he was asked to build a new synagogue. He refused and declared: “First I will build a school, then I will build the shul.” And so he did, building the famed Realschule in Frankfurt.
The second observation was more personal. In 1983, Rabbi Sacks was to be appointed rabbi of the prestigious West Marble Arch Synagogue in London, but he was told that he would have to give up teaching at Jews’ College, the oldest rabbinical school in the world. Not wanting to leave teaching behind, he sought out his rabbi, who said matter-of-factly: “And why can’t you do both?”
And so it was. Rabbi Sacks assumed the post of senior rabbi and became principal of Jews’ College in 1984.
The lesson: if our shuls are going to be successful, our schools need to be successful. And if our schools are going to be successful, our shuls need to be successful. Not independently, but in partnership.
Rabbi Sacks’ advocacy for partnership stimulated three ideas for strengthening the relationship between schools and synagogues to secure a more engaged, active and enthusiastic next generation of Jews.
Parents as teachers: In his evening talk in Montreal, Rabbi Sacks quoted the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who asked, “How do we act in order to succeed in educating our children?” and answered, “It is what you love that your children will learn to love.” Rabbi Sacks added: “It is the way your life reflects your loves, those are the things that our children will absorb and eventually make their own.” When we as parents reflect our love for Jewish life and practice, our children will choose to commit to become engaged and enthusiastic Jews.
Meaningful interaction between the leadership of schools and synagogues: Synagogue leaders need to know what is going on in their members’ schools, and school leaders need to know what is going on in their students’ synagogues. What if synagogue professionals and lay leaders went on official school tours of their members’ schools, observing them through a “synagogue lens”? This could be one way to gain knowledge on what they need to produce in order to close the “shul-school partnership” gap.
Day schools and communal responsibility: In 2011, a day school parent and former synagogue board chair in Hollywood, Fla., convinced his synagogue to allocate $30,000 (which was immediately matched by a donor) to day schools. Each school would receive an annual per capita distribution based on the number of students enrolled who were also members of his synagogue. I know of other communities that have duplicated this type of financial investment. It is truly an expression of “putting your money where your mouth is,” especially since study after study shows that Jewish engagement is dependent more than ever on day school education.
In his closing remarks to an audience of over 1,300 in Montreal, Rabbi Sacks shared a story about his father, an immigrant to Britain who had to leave school at a young age in order to help support his family. Rabbi Sacks recalled walks home with his father from synagogue as a child. He would ask his father questions about Judaism. His father would offer the same answer every time: “I never had a Jewish education, so I cannot answer your questions. But, one day you will have the education that I never had and when that will happen, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”
My 25-minute ride with Rabbi Sacks was a dream come true. His words have inspired me to engage in this dialogue with the larger community. And, by the way, I got the rabbi to his speaking engagement on time and unharmed, plus a treasured picture with him and that inscription for my friend. And while I think I asked a pretty good question, I know that I got an even better answer.
Rabbi Eddie Shostak serves as Rav-Mechanech at Hebrew Academy Montreal Elementary School, Israel Adviser and Judaics teacher in the high school, and director of education at Congregation TBDJ. He is currently a fellow (cohort 9) in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.