My first opportunity to meet Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away on Nov. 7, began in 2013. As a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, I had the privilege of introducing a dialogue between Rabbi Sacks and the Israeli historian Fania Oz-Salzberger. It was a Saturday evening, after Shabbat. More than 500 had come to hear the conversation between the world-renowned rabbi and the noted historian. The dialogue was profound and electrifying. The subject was the words of Torah for all Jews. After two hours, when the discussion concluded, no one wanted it to end. It was an incredible experience.
Subsequently we met Rabbi Sacks and his wife just prior to a Federation General Assembly in Washington, D.C. After Rabbi Sacks spoke at a General Assembly, I suggested we invite him to St. Louis.
He came to St. Louis in early November 2015 as a visiting scholar for the Jewish Federation and Washington University’s Center for Religion and Politics. During that visit, Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine stayed at our home. It was an exceptional privilege for my wife Adinah and myself: To be together for several days with Rabbi Sacks, who by then was the world’s most impactful living expounder of Torah to our Jewish community and individuals of many faiths. In the informal setting of sharing time at our home, Rabbi Sacks and his wife were gracious guests. His extraordinary presence in large public gatherings was also seen in the way he spoke in the privacy of our home, scholarly, thoughtful, contemplative and considerate.
During the three days of being at our home, I accompanied Rabbi Sacks to each of his presentations, including the Danforth Center for Religion and Politics, attended by Sen. John Danforth, and a meeting of Washington University students moderated by Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus. At each presentation I noted a consistent component of Rabbi Sacks. He always spoke without notes and always looked out to his audience as though he was simultaneously seeing the audience and reading a manuscript in his memory.
At the student meeting he was asked to explain his choice of life direction. He shared a widely known story that it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe who, at an in-person meeting, urged him to become a rabbi. But he went on to talk about his own personal hope that each student would be thoughtful in choosing a path for life and choices for values, clearly something of great importance to him.
On the last day of his visit, at our request, he added to his schedule a meeting with students of Yeshivat Kadimah high school. Since then those students, who are now alumni, often tell me how exceptionally special that was, seeing Rabbi Sacks show great interest in what they were studying, responding to their questions, and sitting together and befriending each student.
We already miss Rabbi Sacks so much as do innumerable individuals around the world. May his memory be a blessing for all.
Heschel Raskas is a former board chair of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.