“I’m co-teaching Sefer Shmot with Rabbi Sacks,” one participant said at the end of the recent Torah v’Chochmah professional development summer intensive for teachers. (Sefer Shmot is the Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus.) The four-and-a-half-day conference took place at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for girls in Teaneck last month.
The conference was the initial phase of a two-year program that the Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust launched this year to train educators in developing curricula based on the ideas and values of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Dr. Sacks, who died in 2020, was Britain’s chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013.
This year’s cohort is comprised of 30 teachers who come from 18 Jewish day schools throughout North America. Three high schools in New Jersey are participating — Ma’ayanot, the Frisch School in Paramus, and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in West Orange.
“Teachers really left very inspired,” Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck, the founding director of the Idea Institute and one of the presenters, said. “I think by everything.”
Rabbi Jay Goldmintz of Teaneck, a Judaic studies teacher at Ma’ayanot and one of the conference participants, felt that he gained “a heightened sense of Rabbi Sacks’ contribution and the vacuum Rabbi Sacks left behind.”
Yael Blau of Hillside, another participant, will teach at Kushner next year and appreciated the opportunity to explore complicated questions. “The big questions about Judaism, about our relationship with God and our relationship vis-a-vis other nations, are really important,” she said. “These are questions that I think high school students are thinking about and don’t always have proper space to really delve into.”
She was excited about collaborating with the many accomplished educators in the cohort and on the program’s faculty.
The Legacy Trust’s goal is to take Rabbi Sacks’ timeless wisdom, ideas, inspirational Torah, and bring it to new audiences and the next generation, according to Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, the executive director of the trust’s North American operations.
“Rabbi Sacks is already one of the most popular Jewish voices of our generation, one of the most impactful voices of our generation,” Rabbi Bruce said. “Our job at the Legacy is to perpetuate his memory, his Torah, his ideas, to ever widening circles of audiences, Jewish and non-Jewish, because Rabbi Sacks didn’t just speak to the Jewish world, he also had a tremendous impact on world leadership, on political leadership, on intellectual leadership.”
One of the primary ideas that Rabbi Sacks taught was that Judaism engages with the world, Rabbi Bruce continued. “Rabbi Sacks believed that we could take authentic Jewish ideas, combine them with the very best of Western civilization philosophy and ideas, and impact the world in a positive way.
“Rabbi Sacks in fact embodied this idea. He had a tremendous impact on world leaders, on top intellectuals, because, uniquely, he took Jewish ideas and he did not in any way hide their Jewish origins, and he brought that voice to the worldwide conversation.
“He called that combination of Judaism and secular ideas Torah v’chochmah, Torah and wisdom, with the understanding that Torah is the wisdom that we inherit, that is part of our tradition, and chochmah is the world’s wisdom that we learn, that we engage with — science, literature, art, sociology, etc. Rabbi Sacks believed in bringing that all together.”
Rabbi Sacks taught that each Jew has a unique voice to bring to the world, Rabbi Bruce continued. But in order to do so, the person must be educated in both Jewish tradition and in secular ideas, and the two fields of study are not opposed to one another. Instead, they are complementary. Rabbi Sacks also believed it was important for Jews to live meaningful Jewish lives, to have a reason to be Jewish, to be proud of their Judaism, and to understand their mission as a people.
Ms. Wiener also is passionate about spreading Rabbi Sacks’ Torah in the world. “Rabbi Sacks was a unique figure because he was at once deeply steeped in traditional texts, and was an observant Jew, and yet he fully embraced all these innovative ideas about the world,” she said. “He was such a clear voice of a Judaism that should be engaged in the world” and of an imperative to “take all this wisdom that we have and meld it with the latest achievements of humankind to create a world that is morally and ethically sound.
“So achievement for its own sake was never, for him, I think, simply just so that we can progress, but also so that we can better the world.”
She also stressed that Rabbi Sacks was somebody who everybody listened to. “People quote him across denominations, and that’s very unusual,” Ms. Wiener said. “So I can think of no other voice who has the ability to bridge divides, both between Jew and Jew and between Jew and the world. And I think we all know we need a lot more of that.”
An important way to spread these ideas and inspire the next generation of Jewish students is to bring these ideas into day-school classrooms, Rabbi Bruce said. “We wanted to make sure that Rabbi Sacks’ ideas were embedded in our Judaic studies curricula in a sophisticated and coherent fashion, so we created a unique program.
“Bringing ideas and concepts of Rabbi Sacks into the curriculum requires buy-in and ownership from teachers. It’s one thing to give teachers curricula that are one size fits all, and they may or may not make use of those curricula. However, if we support teachers to build their own curricula, for their own school communities, for their own students, where the unique aspects of those students or those school communities are taken into account, then we know the teachers will be committed to teaching these ideas for many years to come. So we’ve created a teacher training and curriculum development program for classroom teachers who want to be skilled up in the area of curriculum design.”
The program focuses on both content —Rabbi Sacks’ ideas — and on skills — how to incorporate those ideas in a classroom setting.
Some of the conference sessions geared to teaching chumash — Bible — focused on the Book of Exodus and explored such ideas as what is freedom and what is slavery, giving participants the chance to delve into big ideas as part of this innovative framework, Ms. Wiener explained. Participants also discussed such questions as what it means to be free and to be enslaved, and what those states of being do to you; what it means to be a servant of God, and what it means to go from being an enslaved people to having an earthly king to being a people bound in a community and a covenant. “Rabbi Sacks talks extensively about these ideas,” Ms. Wiener said. “These are areas where a lot of his wisdom can be interwoven really beautifully into skills the participants are learning.
“Eventually, the idea is to impact students,” she continued. “And I think to help them see the relevance of the Torah in our lives today.”
“There are many conferences that are professional training, and there are many conferences that focus on content,” Rabbi Bruce said. “But what we’ve done uniquely is brought them both together and empowered teachers to design their own Judaic studies curricula to bring Rabbi Sacks’ ideas into their classrooms in a way that makes sense for their school community and their students.”
The cohort will continue to study together throughout the upcoming school year in a series of online workshops that, like the summer intensive, will focus on both Rabbi Sacks’ ideas and curriculum development skills. Each participant also will work with a mentor over the course of the year to design a unique curriculum. During the next school year — the second year of the program — teachers will incorporate the new curricula into their classrooms, as the trust continues to provide support and mentorship.
“We’re investing in teachers because if we want to have a wonderful education system, we need to invest in teachers,” Rabbi Bruce said. “And for Rabbi Sacks, teachers were heroes. He felt that the teachers really were the heroes of our community.”
So far, the feedback has been positive as teachers and administrators voice appreciation for the help they’re getting in tailoring curricula to their specific students. “They know the level of their students, they know the angle they should be taking,” Rabbi Bruce said. “Ultimately it will be a design that fits their school.”