Keynote Address to the Jewish Federations of North America in 2014

JFNA’s General Assembly in Washington DC

On Sunday 9th November 2014, Rabbi Sacks delivered a keynote plenary address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly gathering in Washington DC.

In front of over 3,000 professional and lay leaders from the Federation network, Rabbi Sacks spoke about Jewish unity and diversity, imploring the audience that “Jews don’t need to agree with each other, but they do need to care about each other.”

Friends, what an honour, a privilege and a joy to be with you today, to pay tribute to one of the really great organisations of the Jewish world. While others talk, you do. While others cast the darkness, you light a candle. Your work has been outstanding. In Jewish social services, in helping to build Israel, in campaigning for Soviet Jewry, you’ve been legendary. You touch more Jewish lives than any other organisation in the Jewish world.

And the proof is you reached out to me with the wrong kind of accent. I’m not sure why you reached out to me. You might’ve heard I was a Lord so you thought I was from Downton Abbey. I’m sorry, but I wasn’t, but I thank you for the generosity of your embrace. I salute your outstanding work, your incredible chairman, Michael Siegal, your CEO, Jerry Silverman, the whole amazing team that keeps this organisation at the forefront of the Jewish world. And I give you a lovely blessing, the traditional blessing that Moses gave his generation. “Yehi ratzon shetishreh Shechinah bema’asei yedaichem.” “May God’s Spirit, His Shechinah, live in all you do.”

Friends, your theme today for this conference is “the world is our backyard.” I have to tell you, the world today looks exactly like my backyard: a mess. But there is no better place to start putting that right than here. And I want, as you look forward to this future, to share with you one simple idea. What will be the buzzword that people will associate with the 21st century? The answer is: globalisation. And for everyone else, that is the newest of the new, but for us as Jews, it is the oldest of the old. For 20 centuries since the destruction of the Second Temple, even for 26 centuries since the Babylonian exile, Jews were scattered around the world and yet, they saw themselves and they were seen by others as one people, the world’s first, the world’s oldest global people. And we still are.

I remember when I first became Chief Rabbi 24 years ago, long before the internet was really functioning, we went as part of the … was then part of the British Empire to Hong Kong and they presented me with a challah cover. There was nothing special about this challah cover, except that it was designed by a Russian Jew living in Jerusalem, manufactured in China, distributed in Hong Kong. For everyone else, it was a challah cover. For us, it was the global Jewish people.

Yet ask yourself, how did this happen? How could it be that before Facebook, Twitter, Google, a global people was even possible? Jews had none of the normal accompaniments of a nation. They didn’t live in the same land. They didn’t speak the same language of everyday speech. Rashi spoke French. Yehudah Halevi spoke Spanish. Maimonides in Cairo spoke Arabic. My Zeide spoke seven languages, all of them Yiddish.

They had nothing in common. They weren’t part of the same culture. Rashi lived in Christian Europe. Rambam lived in Muslim Egypt, the Middle East. They didn’t share the same fate. While the Jews of Northern Europe were being massacred in the Crusades, the Jews in Spain were celebrating their golden age. In 1492 when Spanish Jewry was expelled, the Jews of Poland were enjoying their rare spring of tolerance. So what made them a nation? And the answer is a simple idea, one simple idea, as fragile as a feather yet stronger than steel, it was this: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”, all Jews are responsible for one another, as the Mechilta deRabbi Shimon bar Yochai puts it, all Jews are “k’ish echad b’guf echad”, like one person with one body, “echad mayhem lokeh, kulam margishim”, when one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.

And I remember when I first saw the power of this idea: I used to, as Chief Rabbi, make every year a television programme for the BBC. And in September, 1999, they asked me to make it in Kosovo where the NATO action was just coming to an end. I went and I interviewed the head of the NATO forces, General Sir Michael Jackson, (the other Michael Jackson, not the moon-walking one), and he said to me, I was stunned by this, he said to me, “We owe your people a great debt.” I said “How?” He said “There are 300,000 refugees coming back. What is the sign that life has returned to normal? The answer is when the schools open on time. Your people are running all the schools in Pristina. They made sure the schools opened on time.”

When I left him, I made inquiries. How many Jews are there in Pristina? The answer came back: nine. How was it that nine Jews in Pristina were running the entire country’s educational system? The answer is if you’re a Jew, you have a mobile phone, it was invented especially for the Jewish people so we could “yachna” together. And here it is, you get on a phone in Pristina, you make a few phone calls and then there is the Joint, there’s World Jewish Relief, There’s Israel. All of a sudden, you’ve got the whole Jewish people coming together in Pristina to run the schools.

That is the power of “kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. The human brain is small. Yet, it is the most powerful computer in the universe. Why? Because of the number of connections in the brain, the number of synapses, neural pathways. The Jewish people may be small, but we are hyperconnected and that is what makes us great. So, that is my challenge to you. Take the Jewish community in America and build those connections around the Jewish world and make it truly a global Jewish people.

Now you might ask how on earth do we do that? Given that we are so divided and fragmented and disunited as a people? Religion, Judaism that used to keep us together for the past two centuries has divided us. Israel, which always united us, now sometimes divides us, too. And the answer is very simple. For us, disagreement isn’t a problem. Disagreement is what it is to be a Jew.

Yesterday in shul we read about how Avraham Avinu argued with the Almighty, so did Moses, so did Jeremiah, so did Job. On every page of the Talmud, you find Rabbi X arguing with Rabbi Y. I once did a public conversation with the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz. He began by saying, “I don’t think I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything. But then on most things, I don’t agree with myself.” Elie Wiesel once said, “God created human beings because He loves stories.” I say God chose the Jewish people because He loves a good argument.

Friends, what we need is not agreement. Don’t worry about agreeing. We disagree better than anyone else in the world. What we need is not agreement. What we need is “kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”, that feeling that we are all connected to one another, we’re all responsible for one another. I don’t need you to agree with me. I need you to care about me. And let us clearly say, let us clearly say, every one of us, and let us mean it: “every Jew is precious to me, every Jew is my brother or my sister” and that is what makes us the Jewish people.

Friends, we are living in an age in which instantaneous global communication was made for the Jewish people. It abolishes distances between us. It is made for a people which is tiny and yet scattered and distributed throughout the world. Let us decide here and now to take this gift from heaven, courtesy of Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, let us take this bright gift and use it to make these connections between Jews across the world. Let us think of ways of doing things nobody ever did before. Let us create a universal, free Jewish education by creating an open Jewish day school on the internet. Let us create an open Jewish university on the web. Let us build a Jewish TED so that every Jew everywhere from here to Ukraine to Hungary to Sderot can enjoy the best Jewish minds, listen to the best Jewish stories, and be inspired by the best Jewish music. Let us use the web to initiate a global Jewish conversation so that our arguments can bring us closer together, instead of splitting us apart. Let us make the Jewish people whole again.

There is no other Jewish organisation in the world that could do it better, more effectively or more graciously than JFNA. And I say to you, go out and connect the Jewish world. Friends, I know we have problems. We have many problems as a people. We have Israel isolated, antisemitism in Europe, the Pew report, et cetera, et cetera. But I tell you, with Jewish ingenuity, you can solve even the most seemingly insoluble problems.

And I’m going to prove this to you by telling you a story, one of my favourites and with this I end. It is set in 1947 when, as you remember, relationships between the British mandatory power in Israel and the Israelis, the Jews was not great. How can I put it? It wasn’t great in 1947. And Chaim who’s a moshavnik, is caught by the British and imprisoned in Akko for gun running for the Haganah.

He is sitting there in the British military prison and his wife, Chenia writes him a letter. She says, “Chaim, it’s all very well for you to go and be a hero for the Jewish people. But meanwhile, we have a farm to run and I have a field to plough because now is the time to plant potatoes. How am I going to do it if you’re in prison?” The next morning, Chaim sits down and writes Chenia a letter. He says, “Dear Chenia, don’t touch the ground. There are rifles buried underneath.” The letter is intercepted by the British military authorities. The next morning, the farm is overrun by British soldiers.

They dig up every single inch of the ground. They do not find one single rifle. Disconsolate, they returned to base. The next morning, Chaim writes Chenia, “Now plant potatoes.”

Friends, now go and change the Jewish world. Thank you.

During the Jewish Federation’s 2014 General Assembly, Rabbi Sacks was also interviewed by Rabbi Mark S. Golub for The Jewish Broadcasting Service.