Transforming Judaism in Britain

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."
  • Transcript


Question: How did you become England’s Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Well, there aren’t that many Chief Rabbis.  I’m only the sixth since 185… 45, so we’ve served on average about 30 years each and that’s a great luxury because you start young and then you have a lot of time.  A lot of people who said to me when I was chosen at the age of 42, aren’t you a little young for the job, and I replied, no, in… believe me in this job I’ll age rapidly.  So… and indeed I found so every 30 years or so there is a year or so of search for the next Chief Rabbi.  There’s a vote and I won.

Where did the idea of having a Chief Rabbi originally come from?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: It was established because in Britain, throughout Europe actually, the Jewish communities constituted as a religious community.  And that means that the community must have a head, an official spokesman, if you like, who represents the community, vis-à-vis, the public, vis-à-vis, the other religious leaders, the royal family, the government and the prime minister.  It’s a kind of semi-ambassadorial semi-diplomatic role and obviously there is a Chief Rabbi of Britain for the same reason, Lehavdil as it were, it’s not quite the same thing, as there is an Archbishop of Canterbury in Britain.  So there’s a head of the Christian church, so there’s a head of the Jewish community which is constituted, as I say, as a religious rather than as an ethnic community.

What did you set out to accomplish as Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I wanted to turn a rather staid and quite predictable Jewish community, not very creative one, into a much more effervescent community and I think the community really has been transformed.   We do things in Anglo Jewry today that are not done anywhere else in the world or if stimulated developments elsewhere in the world, we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young people come together to study for a week at the end of the year, studying 600 different courses.  Now Limmud has been exported to 47 other places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and almost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which we didn’t have before.  I wanted to make Anglo Jewry a more religiously knowledgeable community and in 1993, a couple of years into my Chief Rabbinate when I launched my program Jewish Continuity, 25 percent of Anglo-Jewish children went to Jewish day schools.  Today, 17 years later, that figure is 65 percent and rising.  That means we have built more Jewish day schools in the last 15 years than in all the previous 350 years of Anglo-Jewish history so I’m pretty proud of that.

But in particular I wanted to take the Jewish voice and make it a voice in the human conversation.  So I do a great deal of broadcasting for the BBC and other national broadcast media.  I do television programs, a lot of radio.  I write for the national press.  Seven of my books have been serialized in the National press.  And when you consider that the Jewish community in Britain is only one-half a percent of the population of Britain, it means that we have an influence out of all proportion to our numbers.  I’d like to see the Jewish voice much more self-confident and willing to engage with the world.

Recorded on May 24, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman