US: Chief Rabbi race wide open

By Simon Rocker, September 28, 2012
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Ephraim Mirvis

Ephraim Mirvis

It is 10 months since the United Synagogue initiated the search for a successor to Lord Sacks, who is due to retire as Chief Rabbi next September, six months after his 65th birthday and after 22 years in office. But it could be a little while yet before a name is announced.

The pledge of confidentiality signed by members of the search committee to protect the identity of candidates has thrown a high wall of secrecy around the recruitment process. At the end of last week, word reached the JC that the committee was homing in on Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, minister of one of the largest US congregations, Finchley. Further inquiries, however, indicated that no decision has been taken.

United Synagogue president Stephen Pack, who is leading the search, this week stressed that it is “still an open race. We are carrying on with the interviews. We did some last week. The idea that we’ve had a vote is premature.”

But he remained optimistic that the eight men and women responsible for the search will have a recommendation by end of the year. When they have, their choice will go to a wider group of another 15 people for approval.

We are still going on interviewing. The idea that we have voted is premature

The official silence on candidates leaves the field free for speculation, with different supposed front-runners cropping up on online media every few weeks.

What can be said is that Rabbi Michael Broyde, a dayan on the Beth Din of America, visited the UK in May, and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, head of a large congregation in Riverdale, New York, came last month. Rabbi Broyde is a respected, modern halachist who would want to establish his authority over the London Beth Din, while Rabbi Rosenblatt’s forte is community development.

If Rabbi Mirvis does win out in the end, it will be no surprise. A straw poll of UK Orthodox rabbis conducted by the JC in the summer put him in the lead, ahead of the other local candidate Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green.

Rabbi Mirvis’s congregational success at Finchley is widely admired among his peers; he has previous representational experience as Chief Rabbi of Ireland; and he knows what makes British Jewry tick. At 56, he would be more likely to serve one decade rather than two, paving the way for one of a younger generation of rabbis to come to the fore in the 2020s.

While rabbis have no vote on the appointment, the head of their council acts as adviser to the search team, as does the senior dayan of the London Beth Din.

There is a strong feeling among folk in Finchley that their rabbi is the man for the job. “We’d be sorry to lose him,” said one member. “But there is no reason that the Chief Rabbi cannot be based in Finchley rather than St John’s Wood.”

But supporters of Gateshead and Oxford-educated Rabbi Belovski — whose appearance at this year’s Gefiltefest showed a willingness to spread his wings — argue that he is the candidate more likely to instigate change.

Last updated: 5:02pm, October 16 2012