Long before he became the British Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks was a superstar. In the year before his appointment in 1990, the BBC asked him to deliver its flagship annual lecture series, the Reith Lectures, an extraordinary honor given only to the leading thinkers of the day. That same year, he published “Traditional Alternatives,” the first of two-dozen successful books. A tycoon businessman, Stanley Kalms, created a foundation for Sacks to head and is understood to have helped finance a chief rabbinical campaign. Against such a force his main opponent, South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, stood little chance. Young, charismatic and visionary, Sacks was the original change you could believe in.

Twenty-two years later, as the first round of interviews for Lord Sacks’s successor draws to a close, the contrast is inescapable. The full list of candidates is shrouded in secrecy, but there is no one who has whipped up any considerable support or enthusiasm. No one has leaped ahead of the pack. There is certainly no candidate with anything remotely approaching Sacks’s intellectual and academic credentials.
In the Orthodox establishment, and even beyond, this is beginning to generate some angst.

Some say that Sacks, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury, is actually the country’s main spiritual leader

While the chief rabbi is officially only head of the United Synagogue, an organization of 60-odd centrist Orthodox synagogues, he is commonly regarded as the main face of Jews in Britain. In that role, Lord Sacks has been world-class; some say that he, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury, is actually the country’s main spiritual leader. Can a last-minute candidate with the X-Factor still be found to replace him?

The implications of a much more low-key chief rabbi could be huge: The Anglo Jewish community would lose its most prominent spokesperson, and with him, a certain amount of influence and prestige.

“This is a defining moment for Anglo Jewry,” says one senior community leader. As a measure of how political and sensitive the appointment has become, almost none of the top figures interviewed for this article were willing to be named. “From the perspective of the United Synagogue and mainstream Orthodoxy, they are moving to an inward-looking modus operandi. The idea that the chief rabbi is the nominal senior person in British Jewish life, able to hold his own in a one-to-one with the prime minister or head of state – those days are over.”

‘The idea that the chief rabbi is the nominal senior person in British Jewish life, able to hold his own in a one-to-one with the prime minister or head of state – those days are over’

But a less dominant chief rabbi could also upset the internal balance of power in the UK Jewish community. At the moment, for historical reasons, the Orthodox control much of the Jewish community’s infrastructure, and are regarded by the outside world as first amongst equals. The non-Orthodox movements comprise just 30.8 per cent of the UK’s synagogue members, according to a 2010 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, but are growing steadily. They were 25.9% in 1990.

The Progressive movements, says the community leader, have their own up-and-coming stars, such as Reform’s Laura Janner-Klausner and Jonathan Wittenberg for Masorti (roughly the British equivalent of the Conservative movement). With a weaker Orthodox chief rabbi, “they would all be able to operate at broadly the same level. The Progressives might not want to challenge him for the senior role, but there would be a range of senior rabbinical voices that would share the same space.”

For this leader the development is “not necessarily positive”. But others would welcome it.

‘The chief rabbi hasn’t really been the chief rabbi of everyone for decades’

“The chief rabbi hasn’t really been the chief rabbi of everyone for decades, with the growth of the haredi community and non-Orthodox sectors, none of whom accept his leadership,” says Keith Kahn-Harris, co-author of “Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today,” and a member of Reform and Liberal synagogues.“The best-known rabbis are all Reform or Liberal… A low-key chief rabbi would be an opportunity for them. But even if they appoint a high-profile one, there would still be much more public awareness of non-Orthodox rabbis, as there should be. It’s the inevitability of pluralism. Anglo-Jewry has been pluralist for decades, it’s only now being recognized.”

The identity of the candidates for chief rabbi has been the subject of much speculation since Sacks announced his retirement in December 2010. The changeover is due to take place in September 2013.

Sacks was to some extent “crowned” by businessman Kalms. His predecessors were chosen behind closed doors, but the current selection process was designed to be as open and transparent as possible – within limits. The makeup of the consulting group and the selection committee were made public, as was a broad timetable. Very little has leaked about the job description, candidates or actual progress. Nevertheless, sources say that the first round of interviews is just ending and that a very small number of rabbis – perhaps as few as five – were officially included.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (photo credit: Courtesy of The United Synagogue website)

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (photo credit: Courtesy of The United Synagogue website)

Two local rabbis are considered the front-runners. Ephraim Mirvis is rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue, a flagship modern Orthodox synagogue in a tony North London suburb, with a much-envied learning program. South African born, he received his ordination in Israel, and was chief rabbi of Ireland between 1984 and 1992. He is generally regarded as personable and an excellent communicator, but conservative in disposition and not a bold thinker. He is also only several years away from retirement himself.

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski (photo credit: Courtesy of The United Synagogue website)

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski (photo credit: Courtesy of The United Synagogue website)

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, in his early 40s, is the energetic rabbi of the United Synagogue in Golders Green, in the heart of Jewish London. A graduate of both Oxford University and the Gateshead yeshiva, he is considered an intellectual who can bridge the secular and Orthodox worlds, and who already mentors many of his rabbinical peers. However, some are nervous that his theological views are still in flux.

Foreign candidates, who are considered more of a long shot, are rumored to include Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta. His experience as a member of the Beth Din of America may prove attractive as the London Beth Din is commonly regarded as having obstructed much of Sacks’s progressive agenda. Another is Daniel Beller, a British rabbi who made aliya 15 years ago to Ra’anana, where he heads the Shivtei Yisrael congregation. And also there is Jonathan Rosenblatt, popular rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York, who was awarded ‘Rabbi of the Year’ in 2007 by the New York Board of Rabbis. He has a PhD in Modern British Literature from Columbia University and has been a guest speaker at the London School of Jewish Studies within the last 12 months.

Several “big names” have been mentioned, including South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, former Israeli Cabinet member Michael Melchior, and the British rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, Shaul Robinson. However, all three have publicly ruled themselves out.

In recent weeks, dissatisfaction with the known field of candidates has begun to manifest itself

In recent weeks, dissatisfaction with the known field of candidates has begun to manifest itself. In a front-page Jewish Chronicle story earlier this month, a straw poll of 20 Orthodox rabbis showed four opting for Mirvis, two for Belovski, one for Broyde and two for Goldstein. The remaining 11 were mostly undecided or unwilling to express their opinion. One even believed the post of chief rabbi should be abolished.

There is also a petition circulating calling on Sacks to stay in office, although it is unclear how this would solve the problem of his succession, as in three or five years’ time the range of candidates is unlikely to be appreciably different.

And rumors abound that the United Synagogue is still actively soliciting other applications. Its president, Stephen Pack, denies this, although he says they would still examine any new applications that come in.

“Although our initial deadline has passed, we continue to be guided by a single objective — finding the best candidate for the position,” he says. “We will therefore not close the door on inquiries about the position until it has been filled.”

How can one explain the fact that so few big names have applied to what must surely be one of the most prestigious rabbinic jobs in the Diaspora? Some allege that true heavy-hitters have been put off by the very formal application process which was instituted in an effort to make the process transparent.

‘It’s embarrassing for senior players in high-profile roles to submit a job application’

“It’s embarrassing for senior players in high-profile roles to submit a job application,” says the senior community leader, adding that this did not become apparent until applications were closed.

Others retort that anyone interested in the position had plenty of time to make their interest known. Perhaps, rather, foreign candidates were discouraged by Anglo Jewry’s highly hierarchical structure and its strong, right-wing Orthodox establishment, which are not conducive to change. Some potentially good internal candidates, meanwhile, were not encouraged or nurtured in the long-term, perhaps because they were too far to the left.

“Some of the most charismatic people in Orthodoxy are marginalized in the United Synagogue, or they emigrate,” says Kahn-Harris. “If you’re looking for someone with Jewish learning who also has a track record outside the Jewish world, they are likely to be on the more progressive side of Orthodoxy, because further to the right they are turning their back on secular learning.”

One rabbi who is watching the process closely says he doubts any previously unknown, outstanding candidates are suddenly going to materialize.

‘They still imagine that a knight in shining armor will come along and take everyone by storm’

“They still imagine that a knight in shining armor will come along and take everyone by storm,” he says. “All senior appointments allow for the possibility of head-hunting as well as applications, but it’s hard to tell whether the selection committee needs to be seen to have scoured the world so that they can say they couldn’t have done better, or whether they genuinely think they will come up with someone.”

Rumors of a continued search “may show more about the people making the selection than the existing candidates. Many of the people involved in the process may see this as the most important thing they’ll ever do in communal life. They can’t quite believe that the choice really comes down to someone in Finchley and someone in Golders Green.”

If it does come down to Chief Rabbi Mirvis or Chief Rabbi Belovski, then — or for that matter, a Chief Rabbi Broyde, Beller or Rosenblatt — what could Anglo Jewry expect?

Clearly, these are different men with different agendas and styles. Still, across the board there is an expectation that if any of them is appointed, they would focus on internal issues rather than media work and philosophy.

‘Sacks has been exceptional in one or two areas but this is only one slice of being chief rabbi’

One former United Synagogue insider counsels anyone who is worried that the community’s influence will drop to relax. A more low-key chief rabbi is “only a problem if you think that the only way to do the job is Sacks’s way. Mirvis and Belovski are both fine community rabbis with a range of skills. It’s not the same set as each other and not the same set as Sacks… Sacks has been exceptional in one or two areas but this is only one slice of being chief rabbi.”

This reflects one persistent criticism of Sacks, that he has neglected important community concerns such as women’s roles and inter-denominational relations in favor of media work and his own writing. To some extent the chief-rabbi-as-chief-spokesman model represented by Sacks and to a lesser degree his predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits, was invented by them. Previous chief rabbis were mostly internally focused, and many would welcome a return to this.

Similarly, Kahn-Harris cautions against seeing either candidate as unsuitable because they cannot match Lord Sacks’s exceptional intellect and charisma.

“They are people with congregational background, which Sacks never really had – he was in education and an academic. You can make the case that a rabbi with extensive congregational experience might understand the challenges better [than Sacks].”

It is unlikely that Anglo Jewry is going to completely lose Sacks as a figurehead

In any case it is unlikely that Anglo Jewry is going to completely lose Sacks as a figurehead. Although he is expected to spend much of his time post-retirement in America, he is still a member of the House of Lords and still has grandchildren in the UK. He may very well continue to play a national role, freeing up his successor to focus even more on internal issues. (Of course, some candidates might find this a threat.)

In addition, relatively anonymous candidates today might grow into this aspect of the role. Neither Lord Jakobovits nor Lord Sacks came to the chief rabbinate fully fledged as national leaders, says the former United Synagogue insider.

“Sacks was known to be an intellect and [Stanley] Kalms thought he would make a great difference. Jakobovits was known for his work on medical ethics, which was unusual and niche, but he had no public profile as a thinker or ambassador for the Jewish people. This all came with the job, and will come for Mirvis or Belovski.”

Ironically, the next chief rabbi’s biggest asset may be that there is no stand-out candidate for the role.

“Part of the problem Sacks faced is that the expectations of him were so high, and for a lot of people he didn’t fulfill them,” says Kahn-Harris. “None of the candidates being discussed to succeed him has the same kind of profile – or expectations. It’s an opportunity.”