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.