Introducing – Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

For close to a decade, I have had the privilege of working with Rabbi Mirvis at Finchley Synagogue in London.

EPHRAIM MIRVIS 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Rabbinical Center of Europe)
(photo credit: Courtesy Rabbinical Center of Europe)
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 Britain.
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 1,800 members.
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 learning.
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.
Among 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 synagogue.
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 large.
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.
Meanwhile, I 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.
It 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 3,000 years.
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 chief rabbi.
The writer is is the assistant rabbi at Finchley Synagogue in London.