Transforming Judaism in Britain

Question: How did you become England’s Chief Rabbi?
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\r\nLord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Well, there aren’t that many Chief \r\nRabbis.  I’m only the sixth since 185… 45, so we’ve served on average \r\nabout 30 years each and that’s a great luxury because you start young \r\nand then you have a lot of time.  A lot of people who said to me when I \r\nwas chosen at the age of 42, aren’t you a little young for the job, and I\r\n replied, no, in… believe me in this job I’ll age rapidly.  So… and \r\nindeed I found so every 30 years or so there is a year or so of search \r\nfor the next Chief Rabbi.  There’s a vote and I won.
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\r\nQuestion:
Where did the idea of having a Chief Rabbi originally come\r\n from?
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\r\nLord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: It was established because in Britain,\r\n throughout Europe actually, the Jewish communities constituted as a \r\nreligious community.  And that means that the community must have a \r\nhead, an official spokesman, if you like, who represents the community, \r\nvis-à-vis, the public, vis-à-vis, the other religious leaders, the royal\r\n family, the government and the prime minister.  It’s a kind of \r\nsemi-ambassadorial semi-diplomatic role and obviously there is a Chief \r\nRabbi of Britain for the same reason, Lehavdil as it were, it’s not \r\nquite the same thing, as there is an Archbishop of Canterbury in \r\nBritain.  So there’s a head of the Christian church, so there’s a head \r\nof the Jewish community which is constituted, as I say, as a religious \r\nrather than as an ethnic community.
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\r\nQuestion:
What did you set out to accomplish as Chief Rabbi?
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\r\nLord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I wanted to turn a rather staid and \r\nquite predictable Jewish community, not very creative one, into a much \r\nmore effervescent community and I think the community really has been \r\ntransformed.   We do things in Anglo Jewry today that are not done \r\nanywhere else in the world or if stimulated developments elsewhere in \r\nthe world, we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young \r\npeople come together to study for a week at the end of the year, \r\nstudying 600 different courses.  Now Limmud has been exported to 47 \r\nother places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and \r\nalmost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which \r\nwe didn’t have before.  I wanted to make Anglo Jewry a more religiously \r\nknowledgeable community and in 1993, a couple of years into my Chief \r\nRabbinate when I launched my program Jewish Continuity, 25 percent of \r\nAnglo-Jewish children went to Jewish day schools.  Today, 17 years \r\nlater, that figure is 65 percent and rising.  That means we have built \r\nmore Jewish day schools in the last 15 years than in all the previous \r\n350 years of Anglo-Jewish history so I’m pretty proud of that.
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\r\nBut in particular I wanted to take the Jewish voice and make it a voice \r\nin the human conversation.  So I do a great deal of broadcasting for the\r\n BBC and other national broadcast media.  I do television programs, a \r\nlot of radio.  I write for the national press.  Seven of my books have \r\nbeen serialized in the National press.  And when you consider that the \r\nJewish community in Britain is only one-half a percent of the population\r\n of Britain, it means that we have an influence out of all proportion to\r\n our numbers.  I’d like to see the Jewish voice much more self-confident\r\n and willing to engage with the world.

Recorded on May 24, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

The U.K.’s top rabbi hopes to make the country's Jewish voice "much more self-confident and willing to engage with the world."

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