The article by Shmuley Boteach (“Fixing the failures of the UK Chief Rabbinate,” December 21) illustrates his fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Chief Rabbinate and a view which is at least a decade out of date.
Our religious leader, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, is hugely respected and popular both within his own community and beyond. His recent appointment to the House of Lords is an indication of the high esteem in which his is held. He has had times during his period in office when his popularity has weakened, but no leader can be popular all of the time, and in fact, his popularity has increased in recent years. Sacks may only be fully appreciated in the years following his retirement, when we are fully able to understand the full extent of his influence.
Rabbi Boteach’s misunderstanding has lead to his conclusion that the Chief Rabbinate “stifles the creativity of the UK rabbinate.”
On the contrary, it provides a framework for Orthodox rabbis to operate free from random and unwarranted criticism and acts as a facilitator for meaningful innovation. There are many examples over the last few years where rabbis of individual synagogues have used new ideas and programs to great success.
RABBI MIRVIS of Finchley United Synagogue with his Kinloss Learning Center has enticed many adults into Jewish learning and his program has been replicated in other communities across the United Synagogue. Rabbi Andrew Shaw of Stanmore and Canons Park United Synagogue has completely redesigned the heder system to make it more interesting and relevant to the younger generation. Many United Synagogues now offer a variety of different services on Shabbat mornings, to cater to the needs of the diverse membership, rather than the “one size fits all” of previous years.
Over the past 10 years, the United Synagogue, inspired by the chief rabbi, has been involved in a number of initiatives to recruit inspirational rabbis. It has been flying over rabbinical interns from Israel to serve in communities all over the country, with a view to taking up positions in the UK. Senior United Synagogue executives travel frequently to Israel and America to entice quality rabbinic candidates to the UK. Yeshiva University in New York has its first intake of rabbinical students from the UK for several years.
We are seeing the fruits of these efforts in some high quality recent appointments, all of whom readily look to our chief rabbi as a leader and for inspiration.
As well as the United Synagogue starting its own youth organization, Tribe, which has more than 12,000 members, the chief rabbi works in close partnership with the several outreach programs which have transformed Jewish life in the UK over the last decade. Aish UK, probably the most well known of our communal outreach organizations last year boasted 65,000 program attendances. Rabbi Sudak at Chabad, Rabbi Schiff at Aish, Rabbi Kirsch at the JLE or Rabbi Shaw at Tribe have all played a major role in the resurgence of Jewish practice. Bnei Akiva, has seen much improvement by doubling the number of tour groups it is taking to Israel over the last 10 years.
Although many outreach ideas are taken from abroad, many programs have also been developed in the UK, including the Tribe’s “60 days for 60 years” project that has been replicated across the Jewish world. In a recent conversation with a friend who works for Aish New York, he said that many of the programs it runs are ideas taken from its UK counterparts. The leaders of many of these movements will talk happily about the support given by our chief rabbi, and it is no coincidence that this focus on outreach has happened under his watch.
THE RESULTS of these projects are reflected in other areas of Jewish life. There are now several minyanim for Minha and classes across the City of London. Eruvim have been built across all the major Jewish centers and more are planned. There are now more than 50 kosher restaurants in the UK, more than double the number 10 years ago.
Gap years in Israel have become the norm for many students. This year Israel Experience ran tours for 1,318 participants, a number that would have only been a dream 15 years ago. Many Jewish schools are several times oversubscribed, so the last 10 years have seen the building of several new schools including Yavneh College, a new secondary school in Borehamwood. We now have one of the highest figures for children in Jewish schools outside Israel.
This renewal is in stark contrast to the US. Depending on which figures you read the rate of intermarriage is generally at least 10 percent lower in the UK than in the US. Whereas this figure is holding steady or slowly improving in the UK, it is rapidly deteriorating in America. Many of the problems in US Jewry are due to there being no one person who can speak on its behalf and no coordinating Jewish religious authority.
As a result of the communal setup in the UK, the majority of Jews have had some affiliation to Orthodoxy at some stage. The accessibility and affordability of a Jewish education has meant that the UK is much better placed to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. The majority of these organizations, including those that are not part of the United Synagogue, unite under the chief rabbi’s leadership.
BOTEACH’S VIEW that Sacks lacks moral courage does not stand up to scrutiny. Last year a proposed small meeting to discuss homosexuality in Orthodoxy at Yeshiva University attracted vast media attention and a sellout crowd of more than 1,000. Since the meeting, Yeshiva University released a written statement that appeared to express regret that this event took place, including saying that “public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send the wrong message and obscure the Torah’s requirements of halachic behavior and due modesty.”
In contrast, the chief rabbi’s approach is entirely clear, that in line with the United Synagogue’s inclusive approach, any Jew, including homosexuals, is welcome at its synagogues, but the Chief Rabbinate and United Synagogue will not support a lifestyle which is contrary to Halacha. Similarly, with regard to agunot, in 2002 the Religious Marriages Law was finally passed by Parliament through the sustained efforts of the chief rabbi and supporting members of the judiciary over many years. This law gave a British judge the power to hold back giving a civil divorce until a get has been issued. In the subsequent years as a result of his hard work and courage to stand up to “British officialdom,” we have heard of very few new cases of agunot.
Sacks may not represent everyone’s precise religious convictions, but he is widely respected as the spokesman and figurehead for UK Jewry. Its affection for him was demonstrated in July last year when the whole community joined to congratulate him on joining the House of Lords. It was seen as an honor not just for him but for the whole community.
We have been fortunate for the last 20 years to have a man with the
eloquence and intellect of Sacks as our representative. We as a
community were very proud when it was our chief rabbi who was chosen to
address Pope Benedict, during his recent trip to the UK, on behalf of
all the other religious faiths.
Anglo Jewry is a very different place from that left by Boteach over a
decade ago. The next chief rabbi will have a tough act to follow but I
hope that he will find his own way, while at the same time continuing
the great work of Chief Rabbi Sacks.
The writer is a vice president of an American bank in London and an adviser to the United Synagogue on youth policy.