London — Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has big shoes to fill.
Appointed this week as the 11th British chief rabbi, he will succeed Jonathan Sacks, an internationally renowned author and public intellectual who speaks frequently on moral, philosophical and theological affairs.
The widespread assumption among British Jews has long been that a Mirvis chief rabbinate would be quite different, that he would focus on internal Jewish community issues rather than trying to emulate Sacks. But Mirvis has different ideas.
When he takes up the position in September 2013, he hopes to be an “able and capable representative to the outside world,” he told JTA, and would aim to bring an “ethical voice” to debates of national importance.
“A sense of religious identity has never been more relevant, nor more necessary, in our fast-changing world,” Mirvis said.
But Mirvis, 56, who is currently rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue, one of London’s flagship Orthodox congregations, does not intend to neglect internal affairs either. His other top two priorities will be promoting education and empowering local rabbis, in order to bolster the shrinking constituency of Britain’s centrist Orthodox synagoues.
“I will be seeking to deepen commitment within the Jewish community to Jewish learning, values and ideology,” he said. “I see an enormous thirst for personal spiritual growth.”
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Mirvis has a bachelor’s degree in education and classical Hebrew from the University of South Africa, and studied at two Israeli yeshivas – Kerem BeYavne and Har Etzion – affiliated with Israel’s religious Zionist community. Between 1984 and 1992, he was chief rabbi of Ireland, after which he moved to the prestigious Western Marble Arch Synagogue in central London, a position previously held by Sacks. He has been in his current position since 1996.