Every chief needs a rich patron

Jonathan Sacks’s successor will - like his predecessors - be bankrolled into office

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 8, 2009

‘While the Chief Rabbi prepares to don his ermine… speculation is growing over who is likely to succeed him as mainstream Orthodoxy’s spiritual supremo.” So ran the introduction to Simon Rocker’s reflections (JC, September 25) on the gossip now beginning to gather momentum, triggered by the realisation that Professor Lord Sacks has only three-and-a-half years remaining of his contract as Chief Rabbi of “the United Hebrew Congregations”. Who — if anyone — will succeed him?

Simon’s report mentioned five possibles but, before I consider these worthies, I must point out a basic yet often overlooked fact. Those who are serious about playing the game of identifying the next tenant of the chief rabbinical abode in Hamilton Terrace, London NW8 would be well advised to concentrate not so much on the contenders for the job as on their patrons — the mega-wealthy individuals who are prepared to fund the office and pay for its upkeep.

Forget all the hype (and there will be hype-a-plenty in the next three-and-a-half years) about the Chief Rabbi being “democratically elected”. The office costs a great deal of money. Someone has to sign the cheques and pay the salaries not only of the incumbent but of the office staff, the troubleshooters, the first-class travel, the security etc. Find the signer of those cheques and you are likely to find the protégé.

After all, it was the then Lord Rothschild (Nathan Mayer, never short of a bob or two) who chose Joseph Herman Hertz in 1913. It was the industrialist Robert Waley Cohen who chose Hertz’s successor, Israel Brodie, in 1948. Hertz and Brodie were both rabbinical lightweights. But the former appealed to Rothschild as a British patriot (Hertz had been imprisoned by the Boers) whilst the latter was considered a fine English gentleman, Oxford educated to boot.

Immanuel Jakobovits was, admittedly, an erudite, talmudic scholar. But even erudite talmudic scholars need patrons if they are serious about contending for the top job and Jakobovits was lucky enough to have one in the person of Sir Isaac Wolfson.

As for Jonathan Sacks, as he dons the ermine he may perchance find a moment or two to reflect on the fact that he would probably not be where he will be on that day had it not been for the patronage of Lord Kalms.

True, in 2004 Kalms called publicly for Sacks to step down. But remember, way back in 1990-91 it was the support of Stanley Kalms that guaranteed Sacks the Hamilton Terrace job. Kalms appeared to have been mesmerised by the “inclusivist” agenda that Sacks once professed but has long since abandoned. Will Lord Kalms be tempted once more to act as the kingmaker? If so, who might he want to put on the throne?

Naftali Brawer (Borehamwood) seems to have some of the credentials Kalms might admire (leftish-of-centre, strong on outreach). Media friendly Yitzchak Schochet (Mill Hill) has a reputation as being… well, media friendly. Harvey Belovski (Golders Green) recently referred to Reform leader Tony Bayfield as “rabbi,” which puts Belovski to the left of Sacks (who, could only bring himself to refer to the late Hugo Gryn as “Mr” Gryn) but might make him persona non grata with the Charedim. Shaul Robinson and Yaakov Kermaier both enjoy the advantage of currently occupying prestigious New York pulpits.

The fashionable Fifth Avenue Synagogue (Kermaier) has already provided one British Chief Rabbi (Jakobovits). Shaul Robinson (Lincoln Square) has impressive secular as well as rabbinic credentials — his MBA dissertation was entitled: “The Working Lives of Rabbis.”

But of course Lord Kalms may no longer be the kingmaker. That position might well turn out to have been relinquished to — say — Gerald Ronson, or some as-yet unidentified billionaire.

The Russian-Jewish plutocrat Roman Abramovich is of course based in London (where he is building himself a home costing approximately £150 million) and might well be tempted by the possibility of putting one of his Lubavitch friends into Hamilton Terrace.

Or, even more radically, given Mr Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea Football Club, he could offer the post to Rabbi Blue.

Last updated: 6:00pm, December 10 2009


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