Erica Brown wept when she learned that her mentor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, had died. It was days after the tumultuous 2020 U.S. presidential election, and Brown, a Washington-based Jewish educator and author, felt the loss of the U.K.’s former chief rabbi’s moral guidance.
“I felt a deep vacancy for myself and for the complicated world we live in. We need moral guidance in these confusing times,” Brown told WJW this week.
In August, Brown was in Jerusalem. Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, was in Israel, too, and asked to meet with Brown.
“He knew I was a student of Rabbi Sacks and was aware of the leadership work I’ve been doing these past three decades,” said Brown, who has been director of The George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership since 2016, and teaches curriculum and pedagogy at GWU. “Rabbi Sacks’ untimely death was very difficult for me personally.”
Berman told Brown that Yeshiva University, a New York-based Modern Orthodox institution, was creating a center to honor Sacks’ legacy — and asked Brown if she would be interested in running it.
“I had my own, overwhelming ‘hineni’ moment,” she said this week, referring to the biblical response to a call from the Divine. “It was a total surprise and felt like a lot of my worlds were coalescing.”
Come January, Brown will spearhead YU’s Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Center for Values and Leadership, a program funded by Terri and Andrew Herenstein that will identify and prepare future Jewish leaders. She will also serve as vice provost of values and leadership, interacting with the many schools of YU — including the Stern College for Women, of which she is an alumna.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Erica Brown to our stellar leadership team as a key partner in advancing Yeshiva University forward into its next great era,” Berman said in a press release on Nov. 23. “Dr. Brown both exemplifies our core values and lives our mission of educating the leaders of tomorrow.”
Brown, who lives in Silver Spring, brings more than three decades of communal leadership experience, including as director of the Mayberg Center, where she addressed issues such as civil discourse, social justice and leadership in a time of crisis.
(Louis and Manette Mayberg, trustees of the Mayberg Foundation, which endowed the center, are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
As the Sacks-Herenstein Center’s inaugural director, Brown will continue doing similar leadership development work, but for a different audience. Her new position is also “considerably larger in scope,” she said, with more public-facing communal responsibilities.
The prolific author — 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality, not to mention a daily podcast, “Take Your Soul to Work” — will mentor students and early-career professionals, teach as an associate professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and design initiatives and curricula using Sacks’ teachings and writings.
“We will be creating opportunities to teach the Torah of Rabbi Sacks and discovering places where faith and culture intersect and animate each other,” she said. “As I get to know the culture of the institution better, the goals will become more granular. My first job is getting to know people.”
She added: “Putting something new on the map requires a lot of creative energy and a lot of listening and doing. To me, there’s something profoundly spiritual, divine and humbling about creating something new and in shepherding the process.”
Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, met Brown more than a decade ago at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (that city’s Jewish federation) Preuss was executive vice president and Brown was its scholar in residence, a role she also filled here. Preuss said he “cannot think of a more perfect person” than Brown to “take on this new and unique role.”
“Erica is one of the most genuine and truly wonderful people I know,” he said, adding that Brown demonstrates “how to lead humbly, to be guided by one’s values and to impart kindness and wisdom in everything one does. Whether she is teaching five people or 500, Erica makes Judaism and its lessons accessible, engaging, and exciting to everyone in the room.”
Preuss said he regularly returns to both Brown and Sacks’ books for wisdom because “both wield the power to make Judaism’s history and teachings applicable to the 21st century.”
Brown had Sacks as a teacher and master’s thesis adviser. She also taught at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) when Sacks was principal there and also taught occasionally for central London’s Western Marble Arch Synagogue, his former pulpit.
“Observing the intensity of his reading and writing and his commitment to taking Jewish texts and integrating them with the best of philosophy and sociology was the greatest gift I had in my career,” Brown said.
“In our corner of the Orthodox community — Kemp Mill — people are very excited for her, said Nathan Diament, executive director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center and, like Brown, a member of Kemp Mill Synagogue.
“Erica will be carrying on a significant part of Sacks’ intellectual legacy: Torah wisdom and worldly wisdom oriented toward impacting people and society at large in a real way.”
Brown expressed “survivor’s gratitude,” noting that her grandparents survived Auschwitz and found each other after the war. Her life, she said, is “nothing short of a miracle.”
“I am deeply proud to be Jewish and to have Israel as my homeland, even as I am a patriotic multi-generation American on one side of my family. But it has become increasingly hard for us to express that pride unapologetically in an atmosphere of identity politics,” she said. “If I cannot be who I am fully and proudly, then that is a blemish on democracy. I think a lot of Jews I know are struggling in this space.”
Despite the “darker moments of politics,” Brown said the Washington area has been an excellent place to study and think about leadership. While she will have what she calls a “weekly presence” in New York, she isn’t moving there.
“If COVID has given us a blessing, it is that we’ve realized that work can take place in lots of creative ways,” she said.
Brown said she’s excited to meet new students and professionals while working with colleagues she’s known and respected for years.
“I sometimes fear that the emphasis on what we’re not doing right and on who is not in the room has eclipsed the majesty of being part of a 4,000-year-old tradition that has contributed significantly to virtually every field of human interest,” she said.
“I have found that in 33 years in Jewish education, I wake up each day to a life of meaning. That doesn’t mean each day is easy, but each day is blessed,” she said. “I can’t think of better work than bringing ideas and people together in communities of care and meaning.”