The inside story of choosing a Chief Rabbi

By Dr Meir Persoff, September 7, 2012
Shortlisted: Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, the main rival to Jonathan Sacks to succeed Lord Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi

Shortlisted: Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, the main rival to Jonathan Sacks to succeed Lord Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi

In October 1988, some eighteen months before Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits was due to retire, the United Synagogue launched the search for his successor. Within weeks, a seven-man “sifting” committee, headed by US president Sidney Frosh, had drawn up a preliminary list, on which appeared the names of 20 rabbis, including Jonathan Sacks, Cyril Harris, Jeffrey Cohen, Alan Kimche, Chanoch Ehrentreu, Isaac Berger, Abner Weiss, Yisrael Lau, Raymond Apple, Emanuel Feldman, and Reuven Bulka.

Bulka, Feldman, Harris, Lau and Sacks — based, respectively, in Ottawa, Atlanta, Johannesburg, Tel Aviv and London— remained on the second of two shortlists, while Weiss (Los Angeles) was granted an interview at a later date.

The following May, South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and his wife, Ann, were in London for the engagement party of their son, Michael. Ann Harris wrote in her diary: “Cyril was immediately approached by Sidney Frosh and Jonathan Lew [US chief executive] and invited to a confidential discussion on the very morning of the party.

“They expressed doubts as to whether, if Rabbi Sacks were the most favoured candidate, he was suitable for the position, and they had a long discussion with Cyril on his ideas about how the job should be done.
“I was quite amazed when, later at the party, a number of influential people, including former US president Victor Lucas and communal activist Lionel Swift, expressed great delight at the prospect of Cyril’s candidacy and indicated a firm view that he would return [as Chief Rabbi]. Some expressed willingness to lobby support and did, in fact, begin to do so.”

Jews’ College-ordained Harris had left Britain 18 months earlier to take up his South African post, having served three congregations in London, as well as communal and educational bodies. By the summer of 1989, steps were well in hand to interview him, Weiss, Sacks and Bulka — the other shortlisted names having ruled themselves out.

Of Harris’s interview, his wife recalled: “As a result of the conversation between Cyril, Sidney [Frosh] and Jonathan [Lew], Cyril was formally invited to come to London to meet the search committee. To my surprise, I was asked to accompany him, even to the interview, where I sat and merely observed the proceedings.

“I was not asked to go into the room until half-way through. My overriding impression was one of extreme good humour, flowing conversation, interchange of ideas, bright and positive. I remember thinking: if they want someone with experience of every facet of communal life, they would be crazy not to take him. The discussions I heard concerned relationships with the Reform, the ultra-Orthodox, and other topics. Everyone parted amicably and positively.”

Several weeks later, Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the London Beth Din, visited South Africa with his wife and was feted, on the evening of their arrival, by the Harrises and the Johannesburg dayanim. During the evening, Ann Harris later recorded, Victor Lucas phoned from London.

“Cyril was able to speak to him only after the guests had gone. The call was to warn him that the Sacks camp was in the ascendancy and that Cyril should be wary because a deal had apparently been struck with the dayanim regarding the future management of the London Beth Din. Victor’s advice was to withdraw from the contest, but Cyril decided not to do so, having telephoned Jonathan Lew and been assured that the competition was still open.”

After a sifting committee meeting in early December, Harris heard that neither of the two major contenders — himself and Sacks — had commanded the support of a majority and that the committee had decided to look further. Visiting Israel days later, the Harrises encountered a delegation from the Board of Deputies and received an assurance from Frosh that “the decision is still open.” They also met other “men of standing and influence” who expressed “open support for Cyril,” although none appeared willing to provide a platform for him while in Britain for the wedding of their son.

On January 28, Ann Harris travelled to London, leaving her husband — delayed by official duties — to follow a week later. “When he arrived,” she wrote in her diary, “he received no courtesy whatever — no phone calls from anyone except Victor Lucas. He could only assume that his presence was no longer required by the formal establishment.

“Over the period of Michael’s wedding, we were thrown in the path of almost all those taking part in the game. There were two distinct camps — supporters who felt helpless and horrified by what was happening, or who did not realise that matters had progressed so far, and establishment people who had made up their minds in favour of Sacks and either ignored us totally or offered pretence friendship.

“The situation annoyed me so much that I decided to try to find an impartial opinion as to whether to advise Cyril to withdraw. In the end, I confided in Lionel Swift. During a lengthy telephone conversation, he expressed the view that Cyril should not withdraw and that he was a suitable candidate, given his enormous communal experience and expertise.

“Finally, the day before leaving England on February 17, Cyril decided to withdraw and face the more exciting challenges South Africa had to offer, rather than be a candidate without the full and honest support of either the lay leadership or his rabbinical colleagues.”

Adapted from Meir Persoff’s forthcoming book, Hats In The Ring: Choosing Britain’s Chief Rabbis from Adler to Sacks, to be published in January by

Last updated: 9:02am, September 7 2012