Mirvis’s challenges

Officially, the position is called “the Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.”

UK UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
UK UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 Britain.
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 Ireland.
His own 1,800-member Finchley United Synagogue, one of London’s flagship Orthodox congregations, is vibrant and has a thriving adult education program.
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 level.
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 Gryn.
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 trend.
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.
Gone 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.