The Sacks era ends - let the Mirvis era begin

By Stephen Pack, August 30, 2013

With the installation of the new chief rabbi at St John’s Wood Synagogue on Sunday, marking the passage of the office from Rabbi Sacks to Rabbi Mirvis, we can look both backwards and forwards with pride and confidence.

Having led the exhaustive selection process to appoint the next chief rabbi, I was able to offer my congratulations to Rabbi Mirvis at our final meeting last December. The historic meeting confirmed Rabbi Mirvis’s appointment unanimously; as you would imagine, the atmosphere was one of excitement and gravity. It is amazing to consider that Rabbi Mirvis will become only the 11th chief rabbi since 1704. By comparison, there have been 53 prime ministers over the last three centuries, since Sir Robert Walpole became the first PM in 1721.

Rabbi Mirvis is one of the most respected and successful communal rabbis of our generation and is extremely highly regarded by the rabbinate. He has long experience of the British Jewish community, having served here for over 20 years.

He understands what makes British Jewry tick, its enormous strengths and its peculiarities and sensitivities. His record at Kinloss in revitalising a disunited and dysfunctional community speaks for itself. With almost 2,000 members, it now has one of the largest shul memberships in the US family. Unusually he has also been a chief rabbi before, albeit on a smaller stage in Ireland.

He has also had international experience, having worked in Israel and been raised in South Africa. Wherever he has gone, he has won friends and admirers.

Of course Rabbi Mirvis is succeeding Rabbi Sacks, who has carried out the role with intellectual brilliance and in swashbuckling style since 1991. He has brought enormous blessing to our community and in the words of Prince Charles at the tribute dinner we staged in the chief rabbi’s honour in June, has been “a light unto the nation.”

It will be a tough act to follow, but I think that a Mirvis chief rabbinate can build on the Sacks legacy, especially with regards to promoting Jewish education. The past two decades have seen an enormous growth in Jewish education programmes for all ages, at US shuls and beyond. We are now truly a community which embraces lifelong learning.

Chief Rabbi Sacks has been a catalyst for much of this activity. One of his key lieutenants has been Rabbi Mirvis, who has pioneered the inspirational Kinloss Learning Centre, which has become a model for other shuls to follow. In 2011, he also spearheaded the opening of the first Community Kollel in the United Synagogue at Kinloss to promote in-depth learning.

The manner in which news of Rabbi Mirvis’ appointment has been received highlights the significance of the Office of the Chief Rabbi as a representative of the Jewish community.

For three centuries, the chief rabbi has been a figure on the national stage. Famously, over 100 years ago, King Edward VII called Rabbi Hermann Adler “my chief rabbi.” In more recent times, Lord Jakobovits was hugely admired by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, while Lord Sacks has won countless friends among politicians, the media and other faith groups, who have looked to him for moral leadership before anyone else.

With the handover taking place at Sunday’s Installation, we should be enormously grateful for the service and brilliance of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Lady Elaine. In Rabbi Mirvis and his wife Valerie, we are blessed to have people of stature and leadership to follow. Whoever occupies this post, it has a special place in the constellation of the Jewish community, and also the religious leadership of the country.

Stephen Pack is president of the United Synagogue

Last updated: 10:45am, August 30 2013