It’s not every day that your “boss” is appointed a chief rabbi, so when the
announcement came through a fortnight ago [Monday, December 17] I felt uniquely
positioned to appreciate the enormous benefits Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’ appointment
will bring to British Jewry and to its rabbinate in particular. Next September
he will take over from Lord Jonathan Sacks as the chief rabbi of the United
Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, becoming only the 11th person to hold
the post since 1704.
For close to a decade, I have had the privilege of
working with Rabbi Mirvis at Finchley Synagogue in London. It is one of the
largest communities in the United Synagogue, the mainstream Orthodox movement in
Under his 16 years of leadership, it has been transformed from a
deteriorating and disunited community to one bursting with vitality and
dynamism. Unsurprisingly it was the fastest growing community in the movement in
2010 and 2011. Any visitor on a Shabbat will find a flourishing and energetic
atmosphere with six available services under one roof, meeting the needs of the
A cursory look at Rabbi Mirvis’s resume will show that he
is supremely well qualified for the daunting responsibilities that await him as
chief rabbi. Last week, in a series of media interviews following the
announcement of his appointment, he expressed his aspirations to further
intensify the community’s commitment to Jewish values, identity and
In his time at Finchley Synagogue we have been given a preview
as to what we might expect over the course of the next 10 years.
the many initiatives he has introduced is the pioneering adult education
program, the Kinloss Learning Centre, which due to its great success has been
emulated and adopted by a number of other synagogues around the UK. One of the
key features of the popular program were his interviews with well-known
personalities, both Jewish leaders such as the chief rabbis of Poland, Ukraine
and Israel and likewise representatives of other faith denominations, including
former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.
Furthermore, Rabbi Mirvis
has been enthusiastically involved in the Finchley Council of Christians and
Jews and was the first United Synagogue rabbi to welcome an imam in his
Rabbi Mirvis is the founder of the Kinloss Community Kollel,
the first of its kind within the United Synagogue movement. He is also the
founding principal of a local Jewish primary school. Thus we can more than
likely anticipate that Jewish educational enterprises will form the cornerstone
of a Mirvis chief rabbinate.
At Finchley, he has encouraged the community
to embrace a passion for Israel, hosting the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom
Hazikaron events. He has been at the forefront of efforts to actively include
women in leadership roles in the synagogue.
Before Finchley, he served as
chief rabbi of Ireland from 1985 to 1992, so he is familiar with the
representational duties which accompany such a position.
In addition to
his qualifications and achievements as a rabbi over the past 30 years, I have
personally been able to observe and learn much from his unique and admirable
character traits. Most notably, his sensitivity when interacting with people,
his approachability, his sagacity and his genuine spirituality have had a
tremendous effect on me and the entire community. These qualities can be
expected to have a salutary effect both on the rabbinate and the community at
When I was initially enrolled in the position as rabbi at the
Finchley Sephardi Synagogue in 2004, it was an unaffiliated community renting
space from the main Finchley shul. As we shared use of the same building, I had
occasion to observe, consult with and learn from the superb leadership qualities
of Rabbi Mirvis. Now, some eight years later, the Sephardi Synagogue is fully
integrated under the umbrella of the United Synagogue (a model Rabbi Mirvis may
seek to implement in other communities).
This demonstrates his capacity
to reconcile and unite separate strands of the community.
have moved from being an apprentice to Rabbi Mirvis to being one of his two
assistant rabbis. Having had no previous pulpit experience I was fortunate
indeed to have him as a mentor and role model.
It is the duty of a
modern-day rabbi to balance two seemingly conflicting sensitivities.
is critical that he be well attuned to the needs and practical circumstances of
his members. At the same time, it is also in the interest of every United
Synagogue member to have a rabbi who is genuinely loyal to our tradition of
The inherent tension in this capacity is something many
rabbis grapple with on a regular basis. In order to achieve a healthy
equilibrium, there is need for advice from someone who is sensitive to these
dual responsibilities. This is perhaps what I was most fortunate to find in the
nuanced and balanced character of Rabbi Mirvis.
He is one of the most
accomplished listeners I have ever met, and someone who genuinely wants to
“feel” the soul of the matter before attempting to respond. When confronted with
a dilemma, he seeks to absorb the situation at hand and only when the crux of
the issue has been internalized will he offer sage advice, typically presented
as suggestion rather than instruction.
In a world of increasing
polarization on the one hand, and a lack of clear identity on the other, it was
refreshing for me to witness his modus operandi. It seeks to build togetherness
without compromising identity. Rabbi Mirvis is himself proudly modern Orthodox
and passionate about Israel, yet I have never detected any element of
parochialism or adverse attitude toward members or colleagues with even
radically differing views.
Having Rabbi Mirvis at my side has ensured
that the rabbinic position has not led me to haughtiness. His presence has been
a constant reminder that the greatest quality of our nation’s first leader,
Moses, was his humility.
Perhaps it is his personification of this very
trait that enables him to appeal to such a diverse range of people; humility
allows for humanity, and that I believe is the greatest asset of our future
The writer is is the assistant rabbi at Finchley Synagogue