Interview: Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

A year into the job, women and the provinces top the agenda

By Simon Rocker, September 18, 2014
Chief Rabbi Mirvis says he wants to visit all of the UK's 136 communities

Chief Rabbi Mirvis says he wants to visit all of the UK's 136 communities

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has given his whole-hearted backing for Shabbat prayer groups for Orthodox women - once regarded as so controversial that his predecessor Lord Sacks barred them from synagogues for many years.

In his first interview since taking office a year ago, the chief rabbi said that women's prayer groups were "an excellent facility for us to have in our communities".

Rabbi Mirvis has previously made clear his rejection of partnership minyans - mixed services where women can read from the Torah and lead some prayers - but he is happy for all-women prayer groups to be part of a synagogue's Shabbat menu.

"Some of our congregations have women prayer groups for Friday night, some Saturday mornings," he said. "This is without women reading from the Torah. But for women to come together as a group to pray, this is a good thing."

Rabbi Mirvis said he regarded enabling women to become United Synagogue trustees for the first time this summer as one of his first year highlights. "Our community is immeasurably enriched by women taking up leadership roles," he said.

Women's prayer groups 'are an excellent facility for us to have'

But there are other areas where "we could be more women-sensitive within our communities", he believed.

"Some of our buildings aren't very inclusive, especially with regard to women. Sometimes they are up in the gods and quite distant from the scene of action. I'd like to encourage communities particularly when building synagogues to think of being as inclusive as possible."

A good example is Hale Synagogue in Manchester. "It was built 10 years ago. It's absolutely fantastic. It was designed brilliantly, primarily with the women in mind. They are close to what is happening.

"I have been disappointed with some other buildings, some of them new, where they haven't thought adequately about everybody."

It is also important to encourage women to be aware of how they can participate in religious life - such by reciting the Birkat Hagomel blessing after illness or childbirth. "Women should know they are welcome to recite the blessing in public in the presence of a minyan," he said. "It is acceptable practice in many communities for women to recite Kaddish and I want the women in our communities to know I'd like to encourage this."

As chief rabbi, he says he is fortunate to "have the ear" of the nation's leaders, meeting over the course of the year Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. Prince Charles was a "very gracious host". The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and Catholic head Cardinal Vincent Nichols are "all wonderful friends of the Jewish people", he said.

During the difficult summer as Israel's war with Hamas led to increased antisemitism at home, he used the "avenues that have been open to me" to voice communal concerns.

But it is when he speaks of his visits to Jewish communities around the UK that the perennial smile on his face beams even more brightly. He may not have used the term himself but he has set out his stall as the People's Chief Rabbi.

"I am here for the community," he said. "I love going to communities, I love people. And I am always inspired by what I see and this is not just the large communities. I went to Hull for the induction of the new rabbi, Rabbi Lifschitz, and I was so deeply impressed to see a small community so active and pulsating with energy."

In a trip to Leeds, he opened "a new wing of their old-age home, the very first Jewish high school in Leeds, the first kollel [advanced learning group], and a kosher bakery when for many years they didn't have one.

"Many people talk about provincial communities dwindling. On the contrary, we have got some fantastic things happening in our communities around the country and I am delighted to be part of that."

He reckons to have visited 52 per cent of the 136 British communities under his aegis during the year. "I want to crack that 100 per cent," he said. He also plans to increase his campus trips as well over the next year. "Getting round to communities is going to continue throughout my chief rabbinate. That is primarily the way in which I want to reach out to people."

His first projects are also strongly community-based. He has raised enough money to soft-launch his new Centre for Rabbinic Excellence which will provide professional back-up and grants for local synagogue initiatives.

"It is through the CRE that I will have the vehicle to achieve my aspirations for our rabbis and, through our rabbis, for our communities," he said. "I have long ago recognised that, with the best will in the world, rabbis sometimes find it difficult to implement the ambitious goals they have for their communities. Sometimes they lack practical resources, best-practice ideas and sometimes the shul budgets just don't cater for additional programmes."

He will not say how much cash is in the pot beyond " a decent kitty". Rabbis have by the end of the month to apply for the first grants. "It's great already to hear the flavour of what will happen - residential Shabboses for communities who never were able to before: educational programmes similar to KLC [the innovative Kinloss Learning Centre he started as rabbi of Finchley."

The CRE will also support a related enterprise - twinning UK Jewish communities around the country. "I got the idea when I was at a melaveh malka [after-Shabbat celebration] at Pinner Synagogue. The chairman of the synagogue welcomed the chairman of the Norwich synagogue and mentioned that 50 members of Pinner had visited Norwich for a Shabbat.

"The idea is for every single community to have a twin - larger and smaller, more active, less active. And it will be mutually beneficial. So we will have Shabbatonim taking place within the host communities, youth activities and when it comes to festival time, over Shavuot, you will have a group visiting to run an educational tikkun leil programme.

"The communities could be five miles or 300 miles away. Already this idea, which is a very simple one, is going to be operated from our office and I can see a lot of dividends from it."

The recent surge of grassroots campaigns in support of Israel or against antisemitism, such as last month's rally outside the Royal Courts of Justice, was "a very positive development – one we should embrace and encourage", the chief rabbi believed.

He diplomatically refrained from commenting on complaints about the effectiveness of Jewish organisations in dealing with the political challenges of the summer. "I work very well with all the lay leaders. I am deeply impressed by the energy they put into what they do, almost all on a voluntary basis, the selflessness they have. As for their performance, let the members of their bodies decide how they are doing."

It was, he said, "very much up to the Board of Deputies to decide what they are going to do with their leadership".

But for all the tensions of recent weeks, he has been struck to see "broadly-speaking, unity within our community. I think we now have a challenge to preserve that unity and carry it with us even when we are not facing a crisis."

His appearance at Limmud - as the first chief rabbi to go to the cross-communal education conference - may have ruffled feathers on the right but it will not be a one-off. He is planning to go back to speak there this winter. And he hopes more of his rabbinate will be ready to take the plunge too.

Meanwhile, he notes that former London Beth Din head Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu - who was one of the signatories to a condemnation of Limmud ahead of his visit last December - spoke last week at the chief rabbi's pre-High Holy Day rabbinic conference.

"It was lovely he addressed our conference," he said. "I have always had a good relationship with Charedi rabbis, and that is the case now."

As for the left, the goodwill shown by the non-Orthodox movements at his installation a year was continuing, he said. "I made it clear that I will always go the extra mile to get on well with Jewish non-Orthodox leaders. From my point of view, that's how it will always be."

His interfaith bridge-building is not confined to Christians. Muslim-Jewish relations are particularly an "area to invest in", he said. It was challenging because the Muslim community did not speak with a single voice but "I have been encouraged to encounter many moderate Muslims."

He has regular contact with Muslim Council of Britain assistant general secretary Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, whom he met during his ministry at Finchley and who attended his installation. The London Beth Din's Dayan Ivan Binstock also attends a "very constructive group", the Joseph Interfaith Foundation's Council of Imams and Rabbis.

Rabbi Mirvis and his wife Valerie, a social worker, only moved a few weeks ago into their red-bricked new home in Hendon - a historic departure from the period mansion in St John's Wood, seat of previous chief rabbis for a century. The couple hosted their first formal dinner, for visiting Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, last week.

In his new study, Hebrew sefarim line one wall, faced by a more electic selection of books on the other, including the works of his predecessors and autobiographies of Moshe Dayan and Hillary Clinton.

"It is an amazing home, because it is here for the purposes of hospitality," he said. "That's what it exists for. It's a symbol of the fact that as chief rabbi, I am here for the community."

It also puts him in walking distance of 14 United Synagogue communities. He is "as fit as a fiddle", he said. "I'm on the go non-stop, I don't need much sleep."

While determined to be the cheerleader for all that is best in British Jewry, his chief rabbinate will look outward as well. He singles out one aspect of his mission to Israel in spring, where he was accompanied by 50 rabbis.

"I was keen for our rabbis to see the great things Israel is doing in terms of social responsibility," he said. "We visited the Hebrew University where they have a programme to enrich Third World countries and they are doing magnificent work.

"What I appreciated there all the more is that it is not only Israeli brainpower that is enriching the world, it is also Israeli hearts. We have, thankfully, great Jewish hearts. I have been speaking a lot about tikkun olam [repairing the world through social action]. Nearly every place I have been I have spoken about the value of us being there for all of mankind, which is a central element of our Jewishness."

He has sought "to cultivate a spirit in which our community will be with me and our rabbis as we engage on certain initiatives which will be coming up."

Those projects will reflect his belief in a Judaism which is "compassionate, inclusive" and able to "make a contribution of enormous value not only to Jewish people but to everyone around us."

Will we be surprised by them? "Yes."

Last updated: 9:40pm, September 18 2014