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|Outgoing Chief Rabbi visits Hong Kong for the last time with fond memories|
Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks and his wife Lady Elaine visited Hong Kong in mid-January for what is likely to be their final trip to the city before he retires from his role in September this year.
The Chief Rabbi has visited Hong Kong many times over the past fifteen years, his last visit being just last September. Before this current visit, his office specifically contacted Jewish Times Asia requesting an interview. We were particularly keen to take this opportunity to capture Lord Sacks’ feelings and memories of the Hong Kong Jewish Community and to see how he has observed the changes over the years.
Lord Sacks initially became involved with the Jewish Community of Hong Kong at the time of the restoration of the Ohel Leah Synagogue and the building of the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). The community looked to him for leadership during this time and he of course flew to Hong Kong for the opening of the JCC which he described as “sensational.”
He was also in Hong Kong for the completion of a new Sefer Torah and describes how he wanted this to be an event for the children rather than a traditional formal event. The memory of all the children and other community members dancing with the Sefer Torah from the JCC into the synagogue remains one of his Hong Kong highlights.
Looking to the future of the Hong Kong Jewish Community, the Chief Rabbi can only envisage success. He cannot speak highly enough of how hospitable they are to visitors from all over the world and that he sees Hong Kong as being in a unique strategic location. He firmly feels that the 21st century is going to be the “Asian Century” and with Hong Kong being a key city in Asia, the Jewish community is well placed to go from strength to strength.Education has always been one of the major points of focus for the Chief Rabbi and he often declares that one of his most important achievements during his time in the role is that he has overseen more new Jewish schools being built in the UK in the past 20 years than at any other time in Anglo-Jewish history. When he first took on his role, 25% of Jewish children in Britain attended a Jewish school, now this figure is closer to 70%.
It is therefore unsurprising that he always makes a point of visiting the Elementary and High School of the Carmel School Association in Hong Kong. The Chief Rabbi has seen this, the only Jewish day school in East Asia, grow from a small playgroup at its foundation in 1991, to a thriving successful school based over two campuses.
Despite his frequent visits to Hong Kong, the Chief Rabbi and his wife have not officially visited many other Jewish communities in Asia, although he has enjoyed visiting the various Jewish communities in Australia. When asked about this, he explained that he has visited the Jewish community in Singapore a few times but that a certain infrastructure is required within a Jewish community in order for such a visit to be made possible and in Asia.
However, he spoke of his visits to Australia with great fondness, describing Melbourne as the powerhouse of Australian Jewish life, Perth as the home of a vibrant Jewish community and Sydney as having an extraordinary charm of its own. A year ago, Rabbi Sacks and his wife visited Sydney where he gave a talk at the synagogue there to a capacity crowd which was also broadcast live on the radio at the time.
So, will the travels ease up once the Chief Rabbi enters retirement? It appears not. He may be retiring from the role of Chief Rabbi, but there are no plans to retire altogether. In fact, he and his wife plan to travel more. He wants to pick up a faster pace than the role of Chief Rabbi allows. He feels he still has a lot to achieve, a lot to teach and has no desire to slow down. He will still hold a teaching position at a British university and will focus on greater contact with American
Looking to the next five to ten years, the Chief Rabbi spoke passionately about his plans to use the Internet as a major tool for teaching. He explained how inspired he was when Faber & Faber publishers launched The Waste Land app, taking TS Eliot into the 21st century. The app includes a video performance of the famous poem, notes, commentary and several readings. He intends to travel, teach and then if people want to carry on learning from him, they only have to look to the Internet, mainly his own website, where they will find further information for his students to learn.
This will largely be focused on a Jewish leadership programme for University students. Rabbi Sacks said that the media side of his role of Chief Rabbi has given him the techniques required for this type of development. He reminded us of one of his lectures that was broadcast on YouTube and has now had over a million hits. He also recorded a series of eight two minute videos, one for each night of Chanukah.
Despite these aspirations for the future, the Chief Rabbi also ironically feels that the Jews, “will be the last people of the book.” Jews cannot use the technology he speaks of on Shabbat and are therefore still greatly reliant on physical books.
He also observed that Jews are probably the last people in the world who still write on parchment, yet Israel is one of the leading technological countries in the world. He summarised this by declaring, “We are the newest of the new and the oldest of the old.”
He is particularly looking forward to the chance to work with institutions that currently lie outside of the role of Chief Rabbi. He has been able to do this within the UK but not globally and he is excited that he will now have this opportunity.
Speaking in general about his term as Chief Rabbi, we asked him to draw on the highs of his time in this role and there were three particular moments that he instantly recalled. The opening of B’nei Akiva in Manchester, UK which has just recently celebrated its 21st anniversary. Over 1000 people came to see the new Sefer Torah and danced in celebration of the occasion. He particularly remembers a non-Jewish journalist who was sent to cover this occasion by a leading British newspaper. She was clearly blown away by the whole event, writing, “Now I know what it must have looked like when King David brought the Ark into Jerusalem.”
The Chief Rabbi also proudly spoke of the time when Prince Charles asked to attend synagogue with him on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel. He also recalls that when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister in the UK, he requested to come to synagogue every Yom Ha’atzmaut during his time as Prime Minister.
When asked about any low points, Lord Sacks spoke movingly about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Only a few days prior to his death, he had written Rabin a long letter urging him to spend more time talking to the Jewish people as he could sense the building of pressure. Days later the assassination occurred and Rabbi Sacks flew to Israel to attend the funeral. Upon his return to the UK, the Chief Rabbi was presented with a letter that had arrived for him whilst he had been away. This letter was the response from Yitzak Rabin. It was long and heartfelt and spoke about his hopes for peace. This letter was possibly the last thing he wrote.
On a more personal level, the death of his father five years into his role was a memorable low. He knows the pride his parents felt when he was appointed to the role and he was delighted that his father was able to attend his induction but sadly did not live to see all that he was able to achieve.
Thinking about his successor, Rabbi Sacks was asked for his opinion on what makes a good Chief Rabbi. His first and immediate response was that a Chief Rabbi must have the ability to think long into the future. He is only the 6th Chief Rabbi since 1845 so this is a long serving position, unlike the shorter terms of many world leaders. The clarity of thought to look a whole generation ahead is of paramount importance. Secondly, he cited that being able to talk appropriately to people from all walks of life is crucial – lay people, Rabbis, Jews, non-Jews – a Chief Rabbi must have the skill to say the same thing in different ways to different communities, must be a team builder and an inspiration.
Chief Rabbi Sacks has left an extremely positive mark on the Hong Kong Jewish Community, a tight-knit community who wishes him well and hopes to welcome him through their doors again in the future, in whatever capacity this may be.
Interviewed by Nina Soloway
(Issue February 2013)