The Church chose. Why are we still waiting on a chief?

By Simon Rocker, November 18, 2012

The appointment last week of the new Archbishop of Canterbury should be of Jewish interest in one respect at least: it took only eight months after Rowan Williams announced his retirement for the Anglican Church to name Bishop Justin Welby as its new head.

Compare that to the nearly two years that have elapsed since Lord Sacks's decision to step down as chief rabbi and still no successor has been found. From which you might conclude two things: the search committee is going to extraordinary lengths to get the right man. Or they are struggling to make up their minds.

Picking a chief has never been a quick business. According to Dr Meir Persoff, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, it was 18 months from the start of the search to replace Lord Jakobovits until Jonathan Sacks was appointed in 1990. On the previous occasion, it took just over a year to select a successor to Israel Brodie but the preferred candidate - Yaacov Herzog - had to withdraw before he could take office because of ill-health and Immanuel Jakobovits was then chosen the following year.

This time, the Chief Rabbinate Trust did not formally embark on the recruitment process until last November, four months after the election of a new United Synagogue president, who acts as chairman of the trust. But, in any case, between the announcement in December 2010 of Lord Sacks's planned retirement and the launch of the search, there would have been plenty of time to compile a longlist of potential candidates. And, it must be said, electronic aids such as Skype make it a good deal easier to communicate with overseas applicants than was the case in the past.

Since New York's Jonathan Rosenblatt has now bowed out of the race, we are left with three known home candidates: Rabbis Harvey Belovski of Golders Green, Ephraim Mirvis of Finchley and Alan Kimche of Hendon. Yet when I asked US president Stephen Pack last week whether it was now certain that the next chief rabbi would be a local, he responded "you can't assume that".

So what one must assume is that the search committee still have one eye trained abroad. For example, although South African chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, who was thought to be in with a chance a year ago, has repeatedly said that he did not intend to apply for the job, he has not said that he would under no circumstances accept it if offered. Even now, Mr Pack might be booking a flight to Johannesburg in an effort to twist his arm. Not that Rabbi Goldstein would command universal support: his opposition to Limmud in South Africa casts him as too right-wing for some parts of the US. Perhaps Mr Pack and his colleagues have a surprise rabbi to pull out of the hat.

According to the Chief Rabbinate Trust's published schedule, the appointment will ideally be made by the end of this year - nine months before Lord Sacks's retirement. But even if the eight men and women on the search committee can alight on a name, they still have to recommend it to a wider body comprising another 15 people, who may yet withhold their approval.

Mr Pack has said that he is more concerned to make the right appointment rather than stick to a rigid timetable. But, as time moves on, any further delay might send the wrong message to the community - that the Chief Rabbinate Trust is dragging its feet because none of the home contenders enjoys sufficient confidence to carry the day. At this stage, the strengths and weaknesses of the local candidates must surely be well known to the search team and it is not unreasonable to expect that by now they should be close to a decision.

One problem may have been that the job definition, which listed no fewer than 16 "key responsibilities", was so broad that the search committee might have found it difficult to agree a realistic brief for the new chief. Is his priority to be an outward-facing ambassador - "a spokesman on all matters affecting the Jewish community" and "a spiritual voice for the wider community", according to the job spec - or should his focus be more internal, as a mentor to rabbis and leader of Orthodox institutions such as the London Beth Din?

We may have to be patient for a few weeks more. But, at the end of the day, what could even be more important than who becomes Chief Rabbi is whom he chooses - and it could be himself - to run the Beth Din.

Simon Rocker is Judaism editor of the JC

Last updated: 10:45am, November 18 2012