A great speaker, yes, but Chief Rabbi Sacks was not a great leader

By Baroness Neuberger, August 30, 2013
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On Chief Rabbis, old and new.

The outgoing Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has been a huge asset to the Jewish community, particularly in the eyes of the non-Jewish world.

He has been a superb broadcaster, an intelligent and persuasive writer, a great speaker, and he can make the House of Lords laugh at the drop of a hat.

He has been very friendly towards me, and relationships between his office and the non-Orthodox have been often cordial. I like him, and I often enjoy being in his presence, occasionally even sharing things such as lighting the chanuciah at Speaker’s House.

So his time in office has been excellent in many ways, and he will be missed, though I very much hope his broadcasting and speaking will continue, and that he will be less worried about upsetting people in what he says.

But in terms of leading the Jewish community, I had hoped for more. He started so well, with the whole community walkabout, but even that was marred by his exclusion of the Jewish gay and lesbian group.

The row over the death of my beloved teacher and colleague, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, alav ha-shalom, is well known; it could have been handled so much better.

And the fact he did not come to Limmud, probably the greatest Jewish “invention” ever to emerge from the UK, now exported the world over, is a cause of considerable sadness.

Yes, he would have been in the presence of non-Orthodox rabbis and indeed non-Orthodox Jews. But what an opportunity to influence them he missed, and what a shame that such a fantastic contribution by Anglo-Jewry to Jewish learning worldwide did not see his presence or indeed his approval.

He would have been welcomed with open arms, given the greatest of respect, and probably had a great deal of fun.

I would also have liked to see him pull us together in speaking out over a variety of issues, in the name of Judaism — from mental health concerns to treatment of old people, from how we should treat dying people to concerns about refugees and asylum seekers.

He could have made a great contribution to much of national debate on social issues. And many of us would have been with him on that.

So I much look forward to a different feel with his successor Chief Rabbi-elect Ephraim Mirvis. His record of enthusing the faithful at Kinloss is amazing. His sure touch in welcoming all-comers at all times is to be rejoiced in.

I hope he will come to Limmud and I hope he will join the national debate on many issues, sometimes sharing the views of the whole community and sometimes finding that we disagree on some issues, yet with courtesy and respect.

I hope his warmth will embrace us all, and I know that his community-building skills we have seen in his leadership of Kinloss are ones our whole community needs urgently.

Jonathan Sacks’s speaking and broadcasting skills must not be lost to our community, but what we need now is warmth, community-building, and a preparedness to take risks — and to say, to left, right, and the inevitable critics: “Who’s Chief Rabbi around here? You or me? It’s me, and we’ll do it my way.”

Baroness Neuberger is senior rabbi at West London Synagogue

Last updated: 2:45pm, August 30 2013