For Ephraim Mirvis, Big Shoes to Fill

New British Chief Rabbi Succeeds Jonathan Sacks

By JTA

Published December 20, 2012.
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When applications for the position closed last March, Mirvis was considered one of the two front-runners, together with Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green United Synagogue in northwest London. But over the summer reports indicated that the members of the search committee wanted a rabbi with more “star power” to follow Sacks, who opines regularly on the BBC and in other national and international forums.

While both Mirvis and Belovski are considered outstanding community rabbis, they do not have a national profile as public intellectuals or writers.

Several American candidates reportedly entered the fray, including Meir Soloveichik, a congregational rabbi in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University; Atlanta’s Michael Broyde, a judge in the Beth Din of America; and Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York City. The six-member committee, however, was reportedly hampered by an overly broad job description, difficulty in determining exactly what they were looking for and no unifying consensus candidate.

By late November, Mirvis was widely rumored to be the last man standing, but the committee still met at least one brand new candidate: Rabbi David Lapin of Los Angeles. With a decision expected before the close of 2012, pressure began to mount from United Synagogue rabbis and the local Jewish press to meet the deadline. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper editorialized that the selection process “is in danger of moving from chaos to farce.” The Jewish News front page urged the committee, “Hire Him, Already!”

The announcement, on Dec. 17, was greeted with relief. Mirvis is a popular rabbi in his own synagogue and beyond, known for his personal warmth, but whether this will translate into national leadership remains to be seen.

According to Miri Freud-Kandel, a fellow in modern Judaism at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and an expert on the institution of the chief rabbi, there is a “real vibrancy” about Mirvis’ own 1,800-member synagogue, where he established a popular adult education program and allowed other innovations to flourish. The question, she says, is whether he can “take the communal successes achieved in his synagogue context and apply them within a broader context.”

He will only have a relatively short time to make his mark. As he faces retirement in just a decade, the search process for his successor might begin again as soon as 2021.


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