Anyone can change the course of events, especially when they see injustice.
That was the mantra of Gordon Zacks, who died Saturday in the Columbus, Ohio area at the age of 80. A founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition and an unofficial adviser to George H.W. Bush, Gordon wrote the book on character, courage and leadership, and how one person can make a difference. He called such events “defining moments.”
Every encounter with Gordon was a defining moment. He had the ability to persuade, inspire, and do the right thing.
Embedded in his DNA was a Jewish moral compass. He unabashedly followed it in word and deed, always motivating others to reaffirm Jewish life through Jewish education, formal and informal. Not just for the young, he said, but for the old, for every Jewish family and for every caring person, inside and outside the home.
Gordon believed that Judaism has a message to give to mankind to help it deal with the issues of living and respecting difference, and building a just and free world.
“If you also believe that Judaism has that message in Torah,” he explained, “then it is the destiny and the duty of Jews to deliver that message… to repair, restore, renew, revitalize and maintain Jewish life, both in the way we live and in the way our children learn to understand what it is to be Jewish, because it’s only in that way that there is hope for mankind.”
Born in the year that Hitler came to power, Gordon was obsessed with the survival of Judaism, Jews, Israel, America and mankind. His defining moment occurred at age 15, when Israel was formed by the United Nations. “When the land was returned to the Jewish people I remember thinking to myself that that was the most important thing that was going to happen in my lifetime. I decided right then and there that I would be part of the rebirth of the land and the redemption of the people of Israel.”
In 1969, he shared his thoughts about the survival of Judaism with the power-elite of the Council of Jewish Federations. He spoke in large part about “the scandalous condition of Jewish education.”
A pragmatic person, he understood that the primary objective of American Jews in the first half of the 20th century was to succeed in America and be accepted. But the price was heavy: a system of Jewish education that made children Jewish — but not too Jewish.
“We have watered down Jewish education to the point that it is one vast wasteland of banalities, unimaginative, uninspiring, uninformative and unproductive,” he said. “We have Americans who happen to be Jews, but to whom Judaism is so vague and unclear as to be a kindergarten illusion of an unreal world that no thinking, intelligent person could possibly identify with, or be concerned about.”
He offered a prescription for Jewish survival, calling for fundamental changes in the power structure and decision-making process of the organized Jewish community.
He recommended revamped spending priorities, with more investment in Jewish camps, day schools, college campuses, and especially Jewish education — in the home, within as well as outside the synagogue, for adults as well as children, and throughout the Federation system.
Gordon Zacks was a born leader and a magnificent orator. He spoke the language of change. His 1969 speech electrified the Jewish leaders from across the country. For the rest of his life, his message never changed. Formal and informal systems of Jewish education are the key to unlocking understanding, pride, and identification with Jewish life and Judaism.
He also understood how to navigate the corridors of power. World leaders, presidents and prime ministers sought his counsel. Always haunted by the specter of the injustices brought upon the Jews of Europe in the absence of moral force, his central theme was saving Jews, building Israel, and fighting the seductive threat of assimilation.
Gordon feared the existential crisis of the Jewish people. He even shared his concerns with the Lubavicher Rebbe, telling him that there are millions of Jews whose houses are on fire, adding that they’re worthy of saving and entitled to a quality Jewish education that makes Judaism relevant to their lives.
A businessman of celebrated stature, Gordon Zacks was in his element in corporate boardrooms. Scripted or unscripted, he was compelling and persuasive without fail.
Yet he did not limit his magnetic charm and eloquence to the high and mighty. No youth group or promising young leader was undeserving of his attention, since that is where he first found his voice.
The voice of Gordon Zacks still rings clear: Adopt bold, exciting, innovative approaches to Jewish education; build Jewish identity in your home; send your kids to Jewish summer camp; embrace Jewish life on campus; seek out new and exciting experiences in Jewish learning and Jewish living; grow a positive and meaningful Jewish identity. Be a light unto the nations.
Jackie Jacobs is the CEO of the Columbus Jewish Foundation.