The Parachutist and the Rabbi

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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3 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on a wonderful article that displayed the great spiritual portrait of R Sacks ZL and why his message whether in books , articles and speeches to so many different audiences presented Torah and Torah values to an increasingly secular and post modern world and served as a port of entry for further exploration into a positive sense of Jewish identity and appreciation for core Jewish values

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    “Then Rabbi Sacks continued and explained that the Ish HaAggadah was also important….the nuts-and-bolts aspects of Rabbi Sacks’ work that have been little discussed”

    R. Sacks similarly said in a 2018 podcast interview with R. Efrem Goldberg that while  R. Soloveitchik was the “Ish Halacha”, AJ Heschel was the “Ish Agadah.”   R. Sacks said  that R. Soloveitchik told him at their first meeting that he disagreed with Heschel on “Shabbat as a Sanctuary in Time”, whom R. Sacks also met in LA as a student (“Bonus Episode: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l “, “Behind the Bima”, Minute 13). R. Sacks says that Heschel drifted in the end(I would add that  one can certainly point to affective elements in the writings of RYBS).  R. Sacks further says in the podcast  that the affective dimension of Judaism, such as music and cinema,  is missing to an extent from contemporary Judaism(Minute 15).

    R. Sacks was asked by R. Phillip Moskowitz, associate rabbi at  Boca Raton synagogue, for one piece of advice as a young rabbi. R. Sacks responded, “my guess is that you’re giving speeches from there”, pointing to R. Moskowitz’s head. Rabbi Sacks tapped him on the heart, “I want you to start giving speeches from there”(“Behind the Bima” podcast, 1:00:00).  R. Sacks wrote in “Descartes’ Error (Chukat 5777)” about Chukim and emotional intelligence, how “rationality, vitally important in its own right, is only half the story of why we are as we are.” 

    R. Raphael Zarum, the Dean of LSJS, said that the  integration of humanity and  intellect  is the key to understanding R. Sacks(“JN Podcast Special: Tribute to Lord Sacks”, Minute 26). Tony Blair, as did others, described him as “a man of huge intellectual stature but with the warmest human spirit”.

    Some of the human issues and psychological topics R. Sacks discussed were the difference between hope and optimism; at the end of the Koren podcast tribute(1:11:00), R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb mentioned that to him, R. Sacks’ essence and legacy was this quote of “hope vs optimism”, which he spoke of even as dying). He wrote of Viktor Frankl’s ideas, about gratitude, and of facing challenges, particularly relevant during the pandemic. See this Elul’s three mini-lectures , “Faith & Insecurity” , “Rethinking Failure”,  “Building the Future” , and this year’s  “Inspiration from Rabbi Sacks for Shabbat HaGadol and Pesach during the coronavirus pandemic”, available in audio and transcripts.

    Perhaps this is why people who never met R. Sacks told  R. Efrem Goldberg that they felt as if they lost a father(“Behind the Bima” podcast, 29:00); R. Goldberg himself mentioned being brought to tears throughout listening again to the 2018 interview with R. Sacks which he published on “Behind Bima” posthumously.  A  teenager from Toronto wrote in a Times of Israel tribute, “It was the most sad I have felt following the death of someone I didn’t personally know(“A teen’s tribute to Rabbi Sacks, z”l”).   

    The irony is that Rabbi Sacks was naturally introverted and very shy,  yet related to people with warmth(see R. Efrem Goldberg’s article, and his interview with Chazan Shimmy Craimer, “Behind the Bima podcast, Minutes 48-50).  According to former Israeli ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub’s tribute, R. Sacks said:  “I have a passion for ideas, he would say, but I’m just not a people person. It’s easier for me to speak to a thousand people than to three, he would add”.  Through discipline and hard work he overcame his introverted nature according to Dr. Stuart Halpern(JCast Network Podcast, Minute  27). British journalist Giles Fraser said that  for a  “shy man he had a great sense of humor”(“JN Podcast Special Tribute”, Minute 19) and mentioned it in his article. Dr. Staurt Halpern wrote how R. Sacks got up on his chair before hundreds  at a  shalosh seudos in New Jersey and  led zemiros, and similarly did this at a Bnei Akiva Shabbaton in England before hundreds(R. Gideon Black, OU tribute, Minute 16).

     Rabbi Sacks said that what he most wanted to be  remembered for were non-academic matters, as  Gordon Brown  quoted him as saying , “he had helped his neighbour come to the aid of a family in need, assisted someone in distress, and comforted someone who was grieving”, or as a rabbi who  “handed out sweets to children in synagogue”(R. Gideon Sylvestor, Jerusalem Post). He  wanted the words of  “Tzomoh L’cho Nafshi”  to be his epitaph, according to the NYT article. 

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    Below are links to some of the last interviews with  Rabbi Sacks, many relating to the pandemic, and links to some podcast tributes:

    Aish Hatorah video collection of inspiring quotes: 

    Below is one of R. Sacks’ last interviews given before this Rosh Hashanah  with two women from the Chabad community. In the last 10 minutes he speaks about appreciating life through tefilah, especially during the pandemic,  and “why bad things happen to good people” (also quoted in NPR tribute), and mentions “Man’s Search for Meaning” as his favorite book. He speaks, personally, about his “hourly” self-doubts(Minute 38). The hosts also have a follow-up podcast unpacking R. Sacks’ wisdom: 

    Video and transcript before this Elul, consisting of  three mini-lectures , “Faith & Insecurity” , “Rethinking Failure”,  “Building the Future”: 

    Video and transcript before Shabbos Hagadol of chizuk during Corona: 

    Interview with Koren Publishers before this Rosh Hashanah; last 7 minutes R. Sacks speaks about turning pain into beauty and joy, of finding little islands of joy(compare with “Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places” written after the loss of his father):

    R. Efrem Goldberg interviewed R. Sacks in 2018, which he posted posthumously. R. Sacks mentioned how he found meaning in prayer even when it was not easy(including that one can live for a year off an insight into the verse in pseukei d’zimrah,  “He  heals the brokenhearted, and bandages their hurts”(Minutes 9-10 ), how he learned to recover from his early failures, and how he managed to keep his faith in G-d throughout his life:

    One of R. Sack’s final interviews this September  at the Aspen Festival’s  Gildenhorn Book Talk about his last book on Morality:

    Rabbi Efrem Goldberg and associate rabbis speak to Chazan Shim Craimer  about his musical collaborations and close relationship with Rabbi Sacks. R. Zvi Romm also discusses R. Dovid Feinstein:  

     R. Weinreb and others at Koren Publishers speak of R. Sacks:

     Isaac Herzog, British journalists, and Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum of LSJS discuss R. Sacks: 

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