A chief for the next generation

By Richard Verber, December 14, 2012
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The search for the next Chief Rabbi is reaching its conclusion. Other commentators have already outlined the need for Lord Sacks's successor to take greater control of the London Beth Din as well as re-engage with the growing Charedi communities. But what key challenges face the next chief rabbi in involving the younger generation?

First and foremost is the need to tackle the very notion of "the Jewish community" (better, "communities"). The United Synagogue and other bodies - by no means limited to the Orthodox community - are only slowly waking up to the fact that British Jews in their 20s and 30s are not queuing up to join a shul. Many are consciously turning their backs on organised Jewish communal life, choosing instead to create new communities of friends and like-minded individuals that better reflect their outlook. The rising numbers of non-traditional communities and independent minyanim, organised just how young Jews want them to be organised, are a much more attractive proposition for many than the fixed rites of the US.

Jews in this group don't see why they need to join one particular synagogue, especially not when that means paying membership fees. Just as young people don't feel disloyal shopping at Tesco one day and Sainsbury's the next, many young Jews don't see any clash in choosing a Chabad Friday-night dinner and following it with a Reform Shabbat service. The next chief rabbi will need to inspire his US rabbis to provide compelling reasons why young Jews should attend services and eventually become involved members. Where will they be given room to help shape their Jewish community?

Although many young Jews choose not to take part in synagogue life, hundreds are engaged in high-quality learning programmes throughout the year, whether through communal institutions or grass-roots, peer-led initiatives. The example par excellence of recent years is Limmud, whether its one-day events held all year around the UK or the celebrated and much replicated Limmud Conference every December.

Lord Sacks’s successor cannot afford to avoid Limmud

This sees large numbers of young - and not so young - Jews from across the religious and political spectrum take part in five days of learning and a healthy dose of socialising.

While Lord Sacks has already indicated his desire to attend once he steps down, his successor cannot afford to leave it so late. An event where thousands of Jewish people congregate, eager to learn Torah, must become a fixed date in any chief rabbi's diary. He must encourage as many of his rabbinate -and dayanim - to accompany him and engage with participants.

Many young Jews are alienated from communal life because of its parochial stance towards women. Educated, talented women for whom glass ceilings are becoming lower and lower - and smashed - in their professional life, find themselves estranged when it comes to their Jewish life.

With the findings earlier this year of the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership that 83 per cent of British Jews feel there need to be more women in communal leadership roles, the next chief rabbi will have to find appropriate solutions to questions such as women presidents of the US.

The issue of agunot - "chained" women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces - requires urgent attention and can only be done in conjunction with Charedi communities. A strong chief rabbi will need to take the lead on this. Moreover, these, and other disputes must cease to be seen as "women's issues" and instead viewed as "community issues" that are incumbent on us all to resolve.

Finally, the next chief rabbi will need to be adroit at supporting students. Jewish life on campus occupies a disproportionately large part of communal discourse. Lord Sacks has long been a friend of UJS and the honorary president of University Jewish Chaplaincy. His successor must be able to navigate the political minefield of working with a broad range of Jewish students as well as being an outstanding moral voice able to engage with non-Jewish students. No mean feat.

Good luck to those making the decision - Lord Sacks will be a tough act to follow.

Richard Verber tweets as @richardverber

Last updated: 10:45am, December 14 2012