Plan for Mirvis’s successor now

Rabbi Mirvis's appointment as the next chief rabbi has been greeted warmly by the community. He clearly has the respect of his rabbinic colleagues, the affection of his own congregation and he is popular in other synagogues, too.

At times, it seemed as though we would never get here. Just over a month ago, the selection committee was still meeting a potential new candidate. After the United Synagogue president indicated that the deadline of the end of this year might not be met, successive rabbis - and the JC - publicly pushed the committee to hurry up. There were even suggestions of the entire committee being disbanded, or of Rabbi Mirvis withdrawing from the race.

Happily, though, the deadline was met, the right man got the job and disaster averted. So, all's well that ends well? Not quite. The US is not off the hook just yet.

When he takes up his position in September, Rabbi Mirvis will be 57 years old. Presuming he retires at 65, we have just six or seven years before the process begins again.

We have just seven years before the process begins again

As a transitional chief rabbi, the challenge for Rabbi Mirvis will be to make his mark quickly. He will have little time to develop his skills, style or vision, but must hit the ground running. On the bright side, he will be able to make tough decisions without having to worry about long-term relationships or politics.

The US, meanwhile, has to be ruthless about learning lessons. Although we are all basking in the glow of the appointment, the process itself became a shambles, and should never be repeated.

There were three main problems. The first was the shallow pool of candidates. Strikingly, only two British Orthodox rabbis, Mirvis and Belovski, were considered to be of potentially chief rabbinical calibre. And there was no stand-out foreign candidate.

To appoint the rabbi of its dreams in 2022, the US needs to start identifying and nurturing good candidates now. Talented young rabbis need to be given the tools to make their mark beyond their own communities. They need media training and help to develop a national profile; programmes and time to develop their own scholarship; and more independence to develop their own styles of leadership and halachic authority.

Perhaps the US could even create a middle rank, between community rabbi and chief rabbi, that would allow outstanding leaders additional visibility and responsibility. Similarly, the US must identify promising rabbis from other countries and ensure that they get to know Anglo-Jewry.

The second problem was the too-broad job description, which ranged from speaking for the community nationally to mentoring rabbis and promoting women's roles. It seems unlikely that the same rabbi would excel at dealing with the BBC and the Beth Din, yet that is what was sought. If, next time, the US wants to find it easier to identify rabbis with the right skill-set, it is crucial that it narrows down, and properly defines, the job - however politically charged the task.

Then there is the selection mechanism. The 2012 process was meant to be open and accessible, as befits a modern organisation, but the decision was still made by a small, secretive, unelected committee behind closed doors while the rabbis and public grew frustrated. Even now that Rabbi Mirvis has been appointed, few know what his full platform is. If the US does not want to hold an open election for the position among its members, it still needs to find a way to properly engage the community in the process. Its credibility depends on it.

How urgent is all of this? In business, good succession planning can take a decade. The US has just over half that. They really need to get cracking.

Last updated: 3:44pm, December 31 2012