He is known throughout his congregation as “Super Rabbi” and the gentle joke is that, under the dynamic Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s pristine white shirt, there is a large letter R for rabbi, or S for super, or even Spurs, his favourite team.
But, this week, members of Finchley Synagogue — or Kinloss, as it is widely known —were in a bitter-sweet mood.
As long-time member Peter Sheldon, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Trust, put it: “UK Jewry’s gain is Finchley’s loss. Rabbi Mirvis is a giant of a figure in our community. He turned around a dispirited, disunited and diminishing community into the flagship community of the United Synagogue.
“He is filled with new ideas and initiatives. He has a way of bringing people in — and keeping them there. And he has built a situation where the community is more than just the leader, it is also lay people, empowered to do more.”
Rabbi Mirvis has trodden in the path of predecessors more than once. As Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1984 to 1992, he succeeded Lord Jakobovits, chief rabbi before Lord Sacks; and as rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue from 1992 to 1996, he succeeded Lord Sacks in the post.
He arrived at Kinloss when it was at its lowest ebb. Its charismatic but tempestuous minister, Rabbi Isaac “Blazes” Bernstein, had died suddenly in the summer of 1994, and half the congregation appeared to be at odds with the other half. Some of the membership had begun meeting in what was defiantly termed the Alternative Minyan, separate from the main shul.
As Peter Sheldon recalls, Rabbi Mirvis, once appointed, “made clear his intention to heal wounds and unite the community. He would have preferred the breakaway Alternative Minyan to come back into the main shul. But he recognised that, within the minyan, were a lot of young people who were there, not because of the existing conflict within the shul, but because of a desire to have a different kind of service.”
So Rabbi Mirvis announced that Finchley would offer facilities to as many minyanim as there were needs. Today, the Alternative Minyan, now known simply as the Minyan at Kinloss, is one of a number of different services offered at the synagogue, including an early-morning minyan for those who want to pray before commuting into the city, and a dedicated Persian minyan for the many members of the shul who came from Iran.
Super Rabbi Mirvis, says Peter Sheldon, makes an appearance at every minyan; and, blessed with “a phenomenal memory”, has often given the same sermon, word-for-word, without notes, at three successive services in the building.
The rabbi’s “softly, softly” approach has extended itself to his response to women in the community, says Mr Sheldon. “He was the first rabbi to introduce batmitzvahs into the main shul, and has encouraged many communities that women should take a leading role.
“But he strongly believes in evolution, not revolution. He does things slowly, takes his time. He introduced megillah readings for women, but not, at first, in the main shul. He moved cautiously: now, for Purim 2013, there will be megillah readings for women in the main shul.”
Peter Sheldon praised his soon-to-depart rabbi as “a gifted orator, very affable — I have never seen him lose his temper. Of course we will miss him. But there is exactly the same feeling now about replacing Rabbi Mirvis, as existed when it came to deciding to replace Lord Sacks as chief rabbi. We always do: and somewhere out there is another rabbi, with great potential, whom we will welcome into Kinloss.”