Installation of the new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

By Simon Rocker, September 3, 2013
Hail to the chief (Photo: Yakir Zur)

Hail to the chief (Photo: Yakir Zur)

The entire congregation of over 1,400 had managed to be in their seats before the start of the service and they did not utter a word for its hour and three-quarters duration.

Installations of a Chief Rabbi are few and far between — just 11 in 300 years.

Sunday was “a most august occasion in the life of Anglo-Jewry”, declared the presiding rabbi of St John’s Wood United Synagogue in London, Dayan Ivan Binstock.

But while it may have been august — attended for the first time by a senior royal, the Prince of Wales — it was certainly not solemn. The festive mood resembled a wedding.

The man of the moment, Chief Rabbi-to-be Ephraim Mirvis, arrived with his wife Valerie half an hour before the start, receiving mazeltovs from the guests milling in the courtyard. His light green tie and hatless head — he wore a kippah, as did the now Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, who was installed 22 years ago on the very same date — set the tone of an event which dispensed with much of the usual starchy conventions of British Jewry.

The celebration was “much less formal” than previous occasions, said Dayan Binstock. “We are living in a more relaxed era.”

The presence of the heir to the throne and TV news cameras was “evidence of how much Rabbi Sacks has raised the profile of the community”, said David Dangoor, an elder of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.

In the front rows of the synagogue, Opposition leader Ed Miliband sat with Lord Feldman (representing Prime Minister David Cameron) and a cluster of MPs and peers.

Remarkably for a Jewish event, it started barely a minute or two after the scheduled 1pm.

The procession of incoming and outgoing chief rabbis and special guests entered to the sound of Baruch Haba, the traditional welcome for a bride as she comes to the chuppah.

It was sung by soloist Matan Portnoi, 12, formerly of Borehamwood and now living in Ra’anana, to a new setting composed for the occasion by Shabbaton Choir director Stephen Levey and arranged by Raymond Goldstein. Biblical readings from head girls and boys from Jewish secondary schools added to the youthful participation.

Among the 200 or so rabbis, only Rabbis Sacks and Mirvis wore canonicals, sporting blue gowns in their seats alongside the synagogue’s extraordinary blue and orange ark, which looks like the gate to some Aztec temple in an adventure movie. Bouquets of white roses, gerbera and chrysanthemum flanked the steps.

Lord Sacks sung the opening psalms with gusto, shaking a fist and leading the clapping: it would have been no surprise if he had risen from his seat and danced with his successor across the bimah.

In his last address in office, he hailed Rabbi Mirvis as “the right man in the right job at the right time”.

With the deft wit for which he has become renowned, he noted that the Beatles’ Abbey Road studio lay around the corner. Adapting their words, he quipped: “You say hello and I say goodbye.”

Rabbi Mirvis during his inaugural address

Rabbi Mirvis during his inaugural address

The initials of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spelt out “crem”, he said “For us, you are the crème de la crème.”

Then, after reciting the induction prayer, he embraced Rabbi Mirvis and, exchanging seats, just before 1.55pm led his successor to his new chair.

In his inaugural sermon, the new chief rabbi compared himself to the High Priest of old, about to enter the Holy of Holies alone to intercede for his community.

“So, too, I enter into this sacred office and I stand before the Almighty on behalf of my community, the community I love. Our community will always be my top priority,” he said.

While a text had been prepared in advance, he frequently improvised, speaking for more than 35 minutes from memory. It was a feat that impressed Howard Jacobson.

“It was a long talk to give without a note,” said the novelist, a black kippah perched in the centre of his bushy locks like a makeshift shtreimel.

Although there was “no substitute” for Lord Sacks, who was “a wonderful voice for Jews in the the world”, he said, he was “touched by the warmth of the new chief rabbi”.

While Lord Sacks’s installation address focused on a call for a “Decade of Renewal”, Chief Rabbi Mirvis struck a more personal note as he invited people to “come with me” on a mission to “do great things for the Lord”.

The “three great pillars” of his chief rabbinate would be based on the saying from Ethics of the Fathers: that the world rests on Torah, service of God and acts of loving-kindness.

This would represent, he explained, deepening Jewish education for “one and all”. Communities should develop so that synagogues are not just houses of prayer but “powerhouses of Jewish religious, educational, cultural experience”. And there should be a commitment to social action both within the Jewish community and beyond.

“We have a great concept in our tradition called Tikkun Olam, healing the world, making it into a better world”.

For an Orthodox rabbi to evoke Tikkun Olam — once the banner of the left — was a signficant moment.

“Within our society we benefit from the comforts of modern living and the breathtaking advances in science, medicine and technology,” he said. “But how can we ever rest when we know there are so many who have been impoverished, who need assistance, who are weak and vulnerable?

“Within our community, we have succeeded in some spectacular ways together. However, we have suffered damage from totally unnecessary communal infighting and ill-will.”

While British Jewry had recorded a “stunning” achievement in increasing Jewish day school numbers, the fact that more than a quarter of British Jews did not belong to a synagogue “must be cause for concern”.

His motto, he said, would be a quotation from Proverbs. “We shall not seek to impose our traditions on anyone, nor to push our religion down anybody’s throats. The Torah is there as ‘a tree of life for those who grasp it’. We will provide you with great opportunities.

“Come and learn with me, come and learn with your rabbi, come and learn with your friend.”

When Lord Sacks had taken office, he joked, “the Iron Curtain was still falling, the internet was not an integral part of our lives and Arsenal were still winning trophies.”

He talked too of his family — his four sons and six grandchildren, his late mother Freida, who had taught him “that what matters most in life is not the titles you have but rather the kind of mensch you are”, and his late daughter Liora, who had shown “that in a short amount of time you can do some incredible things”.

With a final appeal to “come with me to engage in Tikkun Olam”, he sat down to a standing ovation.

The event passed without a hitch — even the handbag that slipped down from the ladies’ gallery did no damage. The only disagreement seemed to be whether the final song, a piano-acconpanied Adon Olam, was too jazzy.

Last updated: 1:12pm, September 3 2013