South African-born Mirvis replaces long-serving Sacks as UK chief rabbi

Former Irish chief rabbi touts ‘enormous importance’ of Jewish unity as he steps into new role.

September 1, 2013 23:46
3 minute read.
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

UK UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Former Irish chief rabbi Efraim Mirvis, 57, officially replaced Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Sunday as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom on Sunday. Mirvis was invested in his new office during a ceremony at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London attended by high-ranking British officials, including Prince Charles.

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Opposition leader Ed Miliband and Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols were also slated to attend, according to The Jewish Chronicle.

A commemorative stamp is being issued in Sacks’ honor.

Sacks, a popular public figure in England, served as the chief rabbi of the Orthodox United Synagogue for 22 years, and has been described by the Guardian newspaper as “an effective ambassador for British Jewry.”

However, the BBC noted, the office of the chief rabbi may not have the same influence it once did, with both ultra- Orthodox and more liberal Jews no longer looking to the chief rabbi for guidance.

“A warm welcome to @ChiefRabbi Mirvis and my thanks to Lord Sacks for the special contribution he made to our country as #ChiefRabbi,” Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted on Sunday.

Mirvis is a trained ritual slaughterer and ritual circumciser with a BA in education and Hebrew. Born and educated in South Africa, he was ordained in Israel and subsequently moved to Ireland where he became chief rabbi in 1984.

He replaced Sacks as the rabbi of London’s Western Marble Arch Synagogue when the latter was appointed as chief rabbi.

In an interview with the BBC prior to his installation, Mirvis identified dwindling affiliation as an important problem he will be tackling during is upcoming tenure.

He said that he intends to transform synagogues into “powerhouses of Jewish culture, social, educational and religious activity” in order to combat this trend.

Mirvis also said that he intends to teach the Jewish community “social responsibility” as “we’re living in very difficult times of austerity, the challenges are enormous.”

Asked if he intended to visit any Conservative or Reform synagogues, Mirvis told the BBC that “as the incoming chief rabbi I extend a hand of warmth, of friendship, to my colleagues who are in movements outside of the Orthodox movement and to all of their members” and that he would like members of the other Jewish streams “to know that I would like to work closely with them.”

“Unity of the Jewish people is of enormous importance,” Mirvis said.

He lauded Orthodox efforts to expand the role of women in Judaism within the confines of an Orthodox interpretation of halacha, saying that he was “delighted” that “the United Synagogue recently announced that women can become chairmen of congregations and as a result we already have a number of women who are now the leaders of their communities.”

However, the rabbi said that despite this, women would not be ordained as Orthodox rabbis, saying that retaining male rabbis is “the format for Orthodox congregations.”

In a recent interview with the Times of London, outgoing chief rabbi Sacks raised hackles among some in England when he critiqued multiculturalism, saying that “the real danger in a multicultural society is that every ethnic group and religious group becomes a pressure group, putting our people’s interest instead of the national interest.” Multiculturalism, he said, “has had its day and it’s time to move on.”

While Sacks was a popular chief rabbi who “articulated the position of Orthodox Judaism with dignity and erudition,” Rabbi Laura Janner- Klausner, the head of the Reform movement in Britain, told the Guardian, “it is wrong to assume that he reflects the views of the majority of Jews in Britain.”

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