Officially, the position is called “the Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations
of the Commonwealth.”
Technically, the person who holds the title is
chosen by the modern Orthodox congregations in the United Kingdom belonging to
the United Synagogue. But for many, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – who succeeds Lord
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this week – will now be known as the chief rabbi of
And he will be viewed by many as the official representative of
all of Britain’s Jewry.
With British Jewry increasingly split between a
burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population and growing Reform, Liberal and Masorti
(Conservative) communities, living up to the role of “rabbi of all of Britain’s
Jewry” has become increasingly difficult.
Undoubtedly, Mirvis brings to
the job formidable skills. He is the grandson and son of rabbis. He studied in
Israel at Kerem B’Yavneh and Har Etzion – both affiliated with religious Zionism
– and has served in numerous rabbinic positions, including chief rabbi of
His own 1,800-member Finchley United Synagogue, one of London’s
flagship Orthodox congregations, is vibrant and has a thriving adult education
Lord Sacks described what Mirvis did in his 16 years at the
Finchley community as “the stuff of legend.” It is widely hoped among British
Jewry that Mirvis will achieve the same success on a national
However, Mirvis will inevitably be torn by competing interests. If
he attempts to show an openness to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism – for
instance by making the unlikely decision to visit a Reform or Masorti synagogue
– he will risk angering the haredi community.
While haredi Jews account
for less than 15 percent of the total Jewish population in England and Wales,
according to David Graham of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, at least
29 percent of Jewish children under five are born to haredi parents. Haredim are
definitely an up-and-coming power to be reckoned with.
If, on the other
hand, Mirvis is perceived as too conservative in his outlook, he might alienate
non-Orthodox streams of Judaism who were already hurt, for instance, by the
refusal of Mirvis’s predecessor to attend the funeral of Reform Rabbi Hugo
Mirvis might, instead, attempt to focus his energies on
strengthening his own United Synagogue constituency.
Like other moderate
Orthodox communities in the Diaspora, the United Synagogue has been shrinking in
recent decades. In part, this is due to a relatively high percentage of young
modern Orthodox Britons who choose to make aliya. The South Africanborn Mirvis,
57, who has strong ties to Israel, will undoubtedly continue to encourage this
But the decrease in the number of Jews belonging to the United
Synagogue is also a result of what sociologist Samuel Heilman called “sliding to
the right.” Like the Orthodox community in the US, Britain’s Orthodox have
increasingly undergone a “haredization” process. Some have moved so far to the
religious Right that they have left the United Synagogue. And the United
Synagogue itself has also become much more Orthodox in its practice.
are the days when a large percentage of nominally Orthodox congregants drove to
shul on Shabbat.
As a result, some liberal-minded congregants have opted
for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Also, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are
much more accepting of intermarried couples.
Still, Mirvis would
inevitably pay a price for investing his impressive talents and energies on his
own United Synagogue constituency. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have not
hidden their desire for the appointment of their own state-sanctioned rabbinic
representative. When Mirvis was chosen, the Reform Movement made it clear in its
welcoming statement that he was no more than the “Orthodox chief rabbi” and not
Britain’s overall chief rabbi.
In any case, we wish Rabbi Mirvis all the
best in his new position. May he become a leader who can summon the strength to
speak out against anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel, while
serving as a source of communal unity and religious inspiration among British
Jewry, and a bridge to other religions.
Above all, may he truly become
chief rabbi for all the Jews of Britain.