Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Prolific Author and Sage, Dies at 72

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom whose extensive writings and frequent media appearances commanded a global following among Jews and non-Jews alike, has died.

Sir Jonathan Sacks
Sir Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Sacks died Nov. 7 at age 72. He was in the midst of a third bout of cancer, which he had announced in October.

He was among the world’s leading exponents of Orthodox Judaism. In his 22 years as chief rabbi, he emerged as the most visible Jewish leader in the United Kingdom and one of the European continent’s most authoritative Jewish voices, offering Jewish wisdom through a regular segment he produced for the BBC.

He had a close relationship with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called Rabbi Sacks “an intellectual giant” and presented him with a lifetime achievement award in 2018.

In a statement, Prince Charles noted Rabbi Sacks’ death “with profound personal sorrow. With his passing, the Jewish community, our nation, and the world have lost a leader whose wisdom, scholarship and humanity were without equal.”

The author two dozen books, he addressed pressing social and political issues in a succession of well received books. His popular commentary on the prayer book helped to dethrone the more traditionalist Artscroll Siddur as the preeminent prayer book in many North American Modern Orthodox synagogues.

He spoke out frequently on Israel and antisemitism, especially when it came to Britain’s Labour Party under its previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, who Rabbi Sacks termed an antisemite.

That judgment paved the way for the current British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, to harshly condemn the Labour Party, a precedent-setting event in British Jewish life.

Corbyn was replaced in April by Keir Starmer, who apologized for how antisemitism was allowed to flourish in Labour’s ranks under Corbyn.

Born in London in 1948, Rabbi Sacks studied at Cambridge University. While a student there in the 1960s, he visited Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, then spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad-Lubatvitch movement.

Rabbi Sacks credited that meeting with inspiring him to get involved with Jewish studies.

He became rabbi of the Golders Green synagogue in London’s most Orthodox neighborhood in the late 1970s and then rabbi of the Marble Arch synagogue in central London.

Despite his association with it, Rabbi Sacks didn’t use the term “Modern Orthodox.”

In a 2011 address to a capacity crowd at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto, Rabbi Sacks said he was critical of “many of the values of modernity.”

Among the values he took issue with is individualism, which he said had ruined the institution of marriage.

Britain, he noted, had the largest percentage of teen pregnancies and single-parent families in the world, at 46 percent.

He recalled that at a conference on climate change, he spoke about weekly Shabbat observance – including abstention from driving cars and riding in airplanes – as a solution to the world’s energy crisis.

He recognized what he called “the dignity of difference” among religions and cultures. “We each have something unique to contribute.”

As well, he recalled encouraging university students who were experiencing antisemitism to “do the unexpected thing” and lead the fight against Islamophobia on campus.

The result was the Coexistence Trust, formed in 2005 to fight Islamophobia and antisemitism.

“We need friends and allies,” he said.

Rabbi Sacks saw Judaism and Israel as “voices of hope” – Judaism for its ability to outlast civilizations that once seemed invulnerable, and Israel, with its accomplishments in arts, science and humanities, for setting an example for small, young nations.

He urged audience members to “wear [their] Judaism with pride… it will be good for us and it will be good for the world.”

Rabbi Sacks is survived by his wife Elaine, three children and several grandchildren.

– With files from JTA and The CJN.

With a Stethoscope and a Spatula

Oct. 6, 2020

By SHARON GELBACH

The festivals of Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are the pinnacle of the High Holidays, celebrating the gathering in of the harvest. But does the more-than-weeklong feasting with family and friends mean that we must resign ourselves to excess weight?

“Not at all,” pronounced Dr. Rani Polak, founding director of both the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard University’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and of the Center of Lifestyle Medicine at Sheba Medical Center in Israel.

Dr. Rani Polak
Dr. Rani Polak

From his work teaching the little-known science of culinary medicine in Israel and the United States, Polak and his team have observed that once people learn not only what constitutes a healthy diet and how to acquire sustainable skills and techniques, “they can enjoy all the traditional foods while staying within the rubric of a healthy lifestyle and optimal weight.”

Polak is not your run-of-the-mill doctor. In the middle of his medical training, frustrated by the lack of direct connection with patients, he took a year off and traveled to Australia. There, he was able to pursue his passion for gourmet cooking, and completed a professional chef’s course at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.

In a seminal “aha” moment, it occurred to him that he could integrate his love of cooking with his medical knowledge to help promote good health – an understanding that led him back to medical school to complete his training, and subsequently, to a fellowship at Harvard.

Polak described what his Culinary Healthcare Education Fundamentals (CHEF) coaching program offers beyond information provided by a dietitian.

“Until very recently, the medical profession was focused mainly on knowledge – what constitutes healthy foods,” he explained. “A dietitian will tell you what your plate must look like, but not how to apply that knowledge.

“Look,” he continued, “Western civilization has access to the greatest abundance of food in the history of mankind, not to mention information and technology. And yet, obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions, and we’re also seeing a steady rise in cancers and heart disease, conditions which can be prevented with lifestyle modifications, including proper nutrition. Clearly, there is a gap between what we know and what we do.”

Polak’s work addresses that gap through coaching that takes into account individual needs, habits and preferences. Obstacles are identified and skills are taught to reinforce constructive behaviour.

He and his team are currently in the midst of a four-year study researching the effects of home cooking on weight loss — all the more relevant these days given the newly aroused interest in cooking spurred by COVID lockdowns and restaurant closures.

Even more presciently, the team employed telemedicine (“We used Zoom long before anyone heard of the coronavirus,” Polak said) for cooking classes.

“When we started with telemedicine, I was skeptical. I’m not only a physician; I’m also a chef. I like to touch food, to taste it. Initially, we thought of it as a way of reducing costs and improving accessibility for people who lived far away. With time, however, we made an amazing discovery that was born out scientifically: enabling participants to learn and practice the skills in their home environment, using their own utensils and appliances, proved far more effective.

“Of course, it doesn’t have to be ‘either or.’ With our hybrid programs, we bring participants to a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for the opening session. That way, we get to know one another and have a chance to socialize. Then, we continue with Zoom meetings, where we all cook together.”

Polak noted that the Mediterranean diet has been proven to have the highest adherence rate over time, and it’s the one used in his team’s study.

Still, he’s wary of a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I work together with other departments at Sheba, and sometimes patients are sent to me with doctors’ recommendations for a different diet, such as one low in carbs.

“Overall, though, I’ve found that when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the long term, behavioral techniques are what will make it or break it.”

He believes that one of the most important behavioral skills to acquire is time management.

“Home cooking is by definition more time-consuming than buying ready-made or processed food, and of course, time is a rare commodity in our society. One important tip I teach is to cook in bulk, as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, that can mean just one ingredient; for example, instead of cooking a cup of legumes, cook the whole package, and freeze the rest as a shortcut for the next time. Your freezer is an important asset.”

Polak won’t discourage those who insist on their favourite traditional foods, even those that are high in fat and sugar.

“It really depends on the individual and how strict he decides to be. But there is no evidence-based study indicating that eating those foods very occasionally is harmful to health. Even the Mediterranean diet allows for some wiggle room. So, I’d say moderation is key.”


Sharon Gelbach grew up in Toronto, studied journalism at Carleton University, and moved to Israel in 1982. She lives in the Jerusalem area with her family. A writer, editor and translator, among her many projects are writing PR content for the Sheba Medical Center.