The British Chief Rabbi – Right choice began at home

The Jewish Chronicle 3/1/13 

After months of leaks, rumours, deadlock and a search that spanned the globe, the committee to find the next chief rabbi picked Ephraim Mirvis of Kinloss. He is a wonderful rabbi with one of Britain’s most prominent pulpits and he is someone that most in the Orthodox community knew all along was the correct candidate for the job. With the support of the community, the right credentials and the relevant experience, why the song and dance before the decision was made?

The office of the chief rabbi has grown in stature over the years to the point that its incumbent serves as one of the leading representatives of the Jewish people globally. The longevity of the terms, accompanied by the official title of “Chief” give the holder the ability to impact the national debate in the UK and help shape long-term communal planning. And the strategic location of London as a global media hub means that the chief rabbi has the ability to cross borders in a way that few other rabbinical figures can.

Yet while Lord Sacks has global appeal, this is not his primary function, and it was misplaced of the committee to seek a Jewish ambassador to the world rather than a designated head of the UK’s Orthodox establishment. While the personalities of previous occupants have allowed it to go beyond our borders, the office is and must stay fundamentally a local one. Anglo-Jewry has its own problems, ones which can only be solved by someone who understands the community. Parachuting in an American or Israeli candidate, as was apparently mooted, would not merely have appeared odd – imagine the accent on Thought for the Day – but would have meant someone with no local credibility trying to solve local challenges.

The UK is suffering from a major Jewish brain drain. Our returning yeshiva students go to Yeshiva University or to Israel for training, while our greatest export, Limmud, continues to befuddle the United Synagogue. Someone with establishment credentials is needed to tune the rabbinical leadership to the future of mass Jewish popular education.

So why did the selection committee spend so much time looking abroad? As a Brit based in the US, I am often struck by the rock star status that Lord Sacks enjoys on this side of the pond. In communities far more traditional and strict than the ones he is directly responsible for, there is no talk of the controversies of The Dignity of Difference, only effusive praise for how his weekly sermons mix secular learning with rabbinical tradition.

The selection committee sought like for like. They attempted to pull in a leader from American modern Orthodoxy, giving the international Jewish press a titillating rumour to play with and leaving most British Jews bemused. The community, by and large, knew who it wanted and needed to answer the challenges. Republican American rabbis with royal rabbinical names carry less weight with a community that does not like its pulpits used for political purposes.

In the end common sense triumphed and the right man won. The proof of this can be seen in the muted global response to Rabbi Mirvis’s selection. It was a British appointment for a British position.

Rabbi Mirvis may well build himself into a global figure in the same manner as his predecessor. Meanwhile, he inherits a community he knows intimately, one facing major questions he is more than familiar with. His shul has been a leader in Jewish learning, and recently hired the US’s first female halachic advisor. Innovative on the local level, his task will be to nurture the same ideas nationally.

Avi Schaefer Peace Innovation Prize winning entry at Harvard

I am really proud to have won The Avi Schaefer Peace Innovation Competition at Harvard – Received Prize from Ambassador Dennis Ross who went on to quote my plan numerous times in his Forum speech.

The prompt for the competition was:

If you had unlimited resources, how would you bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian societies? (500 Words)

The Jewish Chronicle version 27/4/12

My winning entry was:

The biggest block to any progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a systemic lack of trust.  The Palestinians are looking for tangible land and they get good intentions instead, the Israelis are looking for an intangible concept of peace, and they do not get the rhetoric that they want from the Palestinians.

This deficit of trust will not be met by just getting to know more on the other side. Rather what needs to happen is each side needs to unilaterally take steps that are in their own self-interest that further the chances of a Two State Solution rather than lessens them.

For Israel they need to start building in the north and south of the country empty villages, complete with schools, to transplant settler communities into. Every political party in Israel accepts that at least 30,000 people are going to have to move, and the settler community fears that they will have nowhere to go, like what happened to those from Gush Katif.

With the current housing shortage, just giving cash to settlers will upset the economic balance and further strain the housing market. Instead these empty communities need to be built. They also need to be connected to the train system in Israel to allow people to continue to commute to the economic centers.

By doing this Israel achieves 5 key things. 1) They demonstrate their commitment to life after the occupation, building the necessary infrastructure.  2) They show that they care about the people that they are exporting. 3) They lengthen Israel’s strategic corridor away from just the coastal region through linking the rail network allowing more of their citizens to live elsewhere and still commute. 4) They can rebalance the demographic worries in the North and South without any talk of transfer of Arab citizenship. 5) They can afford this through usage of the Tamers gas field off the cost of Haifa as a major infrastructural investment.

On the Palestinian end, a continuation of building the Palestinian state needs to continue. This infrastructural growth needs to happen alongside political momentum that will be generated by the building of these towns within Green Line Israel. In this way Palestinians will be able to focus on building their state with the knowledge that the land they claim will be under their control. Build Palestine will be the national call.

Both of these steps can happen independent of each other, one hopes that they would happen simultaneously and go some of the way to fill the trust deficit that makes any progress within the peace process impossible.

Obama’s inside track on Israel

The Jewish Chronicle 3/30/12

In Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart tracks, the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, whom he terms the first “Jewish President”. It’s not a reference to Obama being a crypto-Jew, but rather that the intellectual and moral milieu within which Obama made his meteoric rise was entirely Jewish.

Beinart was not the first to use the phrase, – it’s actually a quote from an Obama fundraiser in 2008. It highlights the remarkable comfort that the President has when speaking to Jewish audiences about Judaism. One only needs to read his speech to the Reform Biennial – the quotes about his daughters attending barmitzvahs, the quotes from the weekly Torah portion, the ease with which he says Hebrew phrases – to see that this is someone with a real affinity and connection.

Jeffrey Goldberg, unofficial dean of the Jewish press corps, confirms these feelings. After being granted an interview with the President on the eve his Aipac speech, Goldberg gave Obama the New American Haggadah to which he, Goldberg, had contributed. The president who hosts a White House Seder, quipped: “Does this mean I can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?” The Maxwell House Haggadah is given for free in the US when you buy a jar of Kosher for Passover coffee.

This level of immersion in the day-to-day life of American Jewry is far removed from political pandering and evangelical philo-semitism. Obama truly gets the Judaism of mainstream America, to such an extent that he can hock with the best of them. It is this comfort with Jewish America that explains, in part at least, the President’s much commented-on relationship with Israel.

They mean he shows the wrong sort of affinity

Whether it is the mismatch of a Likud government in Israel and a Democratic administration in DC, or the current toxic hyper-partisanship of modern US politics, Israel is now an electoral issue. Presidential candidates looking for the advantage in swing constituencies like Florida have latched on to it. An attempt to narrow the definition of “Pro-Israel” seeks to limit the supporters of Israel to those who support the policies of the current Israeli government.

The discussions remind me of our own community discussions on public criticism of the policies of Israel. Obama’s speeches are reminiscent of the discussions at Shabbat tables across the Jewish World. People who claim that the President lacks affinity for the Jewish people and the state of Israel misrepresent themselves. What they actually mean is that he shows the wrong sort of affinity.

As the leader of Israel’s most important strategic ally, Obama feels like he has the right to comment on what Israel does. The democratically elected government of Israel can do as it sees fit, but it does not automatically get the current level of American support based on its democratic nature alone.

Nothing Obama says or does cannot be heard in any Jewish community discussion about Israel anywhere. It would not surprise me if we learn one day that his opinions were formed at various Shabbat tables in Chicago. The discomfort of many of Obama’s Jewish political opponents is that it is not a lack of knowledge, or hatred, that is behind his stance on Israel, but merely a difference of opinion about what needs to be done.

The first Jewish President is feeling the effects of our internal community broiges. The recriminations are always more bitter within a closely knit community than with those with whom you have no affinity. The anger that many are feeling towards Obama on Israel is perhaps just a stand-in for how many in our community feel about each other.

Youth Movements – the Pride of Anglo Jewry

The Jewish Chronicle 29/12/11

As a community, we are often very down on ourselves. There is nothing we like more than complaining over Friday-night dinner about how various parts of the UK Jewish communal structures are outdated, failing, awful or irrelevant. The United States, in contrast, is viewed as a Jewish communal mecca full of vibrancy, life and opportunity.

Having now moved to the US, I can confirm that there are parts of the communal scene where the grass is indeed greener. You really can find an organisation to fit your every whim and want. From pluralist mikvaot to four different groups dealing with the Jewish response to global warming, the millions of Jews across the Atlantic are well served.

Yet for all its size and wealth the US Jewish community – or any other Jewish community for that matter – cannot compete with British Jewry when it comes to youth movements. We have managed to create and sustain groups that continually produce the top leaders, thinkers and doers in the Jewish world. We have done so in a way that caters to every sector; for every Jew, there is a youth movement to suit him or her.

Youth movements are the jewels in the crown of the UK Jewish community. The vast majority of our Jewish leaders are graduates of one of these groups. Their educational legacies can be seen both in the informal educational departments of the various Jewish schools and in Limmud, the community’s global Jewish export.

Every Jew has a youth movement to suit him or her

So how does allowing your kids to sleep in a rainy field somewhere in the British countryside for a few weeks a year produce this result? The first thing to highlight is the peer leadership structure; these movements are run, by young people, for young people.

From the age of 17, with no pay, members volunteer to give up their holidays to run camps for children. Parents trust 20-year-olds to be in charge of their kids abroad and to provide them with a fun and safe time. This level of responsibility and practical experience brings about exceptional leadership skills.

Former youth leaders often wonder how to market the skills that they have learnt in youth movements when applying for jobs. My advice? Focus on how you have learnt to work in teams and manage your peers, how you have learnt budgeting and logistics, creative problem solving and communication skills.

You have learnt to create brand loyalty, demonstrated responsibility and become familiar with crisis management in tense situations. You have a clear understanding of who you are and what you believe and have helped others discover this in themselves. You have led, and have taught others to lead.

The self-knowledge and understanding, the ability to spot ones own strengths and weaknesses, put our youth movement graduates ahead of their university peers.

When British students arrive in Israel for gap-year programmes, they tend to have a far more mature sense of self than their American compatriots. The leadership exercises I performed when I was a 17-year-old in Bnei Akiva are the same ones I am learning from my professors today as a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Our youth movements rival any elite school in terms of preparation for real skills in the workplace.

Where we have fallen down as a community is in finding the next step for our youth leaders. The vital transition from loyalty to one’s youth group to loyalty to the wider community needs real leadership positions to be earmarked for young professionals. The Jewish Volunteering Network’s current drive for more young trustees is a great start to answer this challenge.

With the global economic situation still gloomy, the community needs to choose its priorities. There can be no better investment then our youth movements. That means graduates of these, and parents of graduates donating to these movements. It means giving again even if you have given before.

Sometimes, as well as complaining about how bad the community is, we need to recognise how fabulous it is, too.