Dark horse emerges in race to become UK’s next chief rabbi

Months behind schedule and mired in infighting, contest is raising questions about the committee overseeing the selection

Rabbi David Lapin's business background adds a unique dimension to his potential candidacy for chief rabbi, although he says he has not been formally interviewed by the search committee. (Photo credit: Courtesy of
Rabbi David Lapin's business background adds a unique dimension to his potential candidacy for chief rabbi, although he says he has not been formally interviewed by the search committee. (Photo credit: Courtesy of

LONDON — Why is the search for a new British chief rabbi taking so long? Will the messiah come before a new chief rabbi is announced? And would the messiah even be considered a suitable candidate?

The questions, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, are clearly beginning to exasperate Britain’s Jews, most of whom expected a name to be announced shortly after the Jewish holidays, now almost two months ago.

The successor to Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is due to retire in September 2013, should have been selected in the third quarter of 2012 and announced in the fourth. However, Stephen Pack, president of the United Synagogue, the group of Orthodox shuls that officially employs the chief rabbi, recently indicated publicly that the search may continue into the new year, and that the decision will not be rushed.

Nor has it gone unnoticed that the Church of England took just eight months before naming its new leader, Justin Welby, a former oil executive, at the start of November. (Incidentally, the new Archbishop of Canterbury has a paternal Jewish grandfather — perhaps for a quarter of his time, he could stand in as chief rabbi if no other candidate emerges.)

Meanwhile, signs abound that all is not well in and around the chief rabbinical search committee.

The United Synagogue has dismissed as “nonsense” the rumor that one leader will be leaving the organization next year after criticizing the handling of the search.

But sources with knowledge of the process, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, have variously described it to The Times of Israel as “a bit of a mess,” “a mess” and “bedlam.”

Relations within the eight-member committee are said to be increasingly tense, with senior members allegedly trying to impose their will on the others, and deep unhappiness emerging among at least half of the members regarding the final choices.

Sources with knowledge of the process have described it as ‘a mess’ and ‘bedlam’

In fact, insiders say, there is currently only one real choice: Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, of Finchley United Synagogue, a flagship modern Orthodox community in an upmarket London suburb. Of the original candidates, he is said to be the “last man standing.”

Mirvis has several champions on the committee who are pressing his case hard, and who are pushing for his urgent appointment, arguing that the delay is becoming embarrassing.

But the clearest indication that the majority of the committee has still not settled on Mirvis — who is said to be a candidate of the “status quo” — is that at this late stage, there remains an active search for new candidates — preferably, one source says, “big names.”

At least one new candidate was being considered just last week. A source close to the search identified him as Rabbi David Lapin, a South African who has lived in North America since 1997. Although Lapin — reached in the UK this weekend — denied he had been interviewed, he did confirm he had met with the committee.

Lapin’s CV is markedly different from those of the other candidates, in that he is not currently serving as the rabbi of a community, but is CEO of his own business consulting firm, Lapin Consulting International.

Coming from a heavily rabbinic family and educated in part at England’s Gateshead Talmudic College, he was the founder of the Keter Torah community in Johannesburg. According to his website, he “helped spearhead the ba’al teshuvah movement in the city” in the 1970s and ’80s, and reorganized its kashrut authority. Following his emigration to the US, he took over the Pacific Jewish Center in California — previously headed by his brother Daniel, head of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians — and now leads regular religious classes, although he “preferred not to earn his living from the teaching of Torah, but rather to remain intellectually and financially independent. He thus ran a business parallel to his rabbinic activities.”

David Lapin, says Henry Blumenthal, the immediate past president and current gabbai of Sandton Shul, one of South Africa’s largest congregations, is “erudite, articulate, exceptionally intelligent, energetic and with a very sophisticated [emotional quotient].”

But what makes him stand out, he says, is his experience in the commercial world.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis remains a front-runner in the race to replace Lord Jonathan Sacks. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis remains a front-runner in the race to replace Lord Jonathan Sacks. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

“The fact that he sits on a number of global boards of directors adds to why people want to listen to him from the pulpit. This is what distinguishes him — his experience not just as rabbinic leader, but what he has accomplished in business.”

Sandton, he says, has invited Lapin to address the community “numerous” times since he left South Africa, and to facilitate a strategy session for the synagogue’s executive committee. Although Lapin left the community 15 years ago, Blumenthal says, he remains well-known in the community, and his website, on which he posts his writings and classes, is popular among South African Jewry.

But Lapin is not an uncomplicated candidate. His lack of recent pulpit experience might work against him, as might — in the conservative world of Anglo-Jewry — the fact that he is divorced. And while he is virtually anonymous in the UK, in the US, he and his brother are associated with the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who spent three and a half years in prison for political corruption.

How did the committee, then, get to the end of November with one local candidate a majority seems reluctant to appoint, and just the beginnings of another lead, or leads?

The main obstacle to the successful conclusion of the process — and a source of much frustration, allegedly, within the committee — is the unusually broad job description.

“It was written to keep everyone satisfied,” says one interested party. “As a result, it’s incoherent. It describes a combination of Superman and Einstein, with a little bit of Moses thrown in. It’s a wish list, not a job description.”

One local rabbi says that his colleagues had “all noticed” the breadth of the job description.

“They’re asking the next chief rabbi to be [simultaneously] the representative of Orthodox Judaism and of Anglo-Jewry,” two constituencies whose beliefs and interests often diverge. “That’s what paralyzed Jonathan Sacks,” he says. “How could they dream of putting that on paper?”

He expressed astonishment at the wide range of candidates who were rumored to have been interviewed or pursued by the committee, calling it a “beauty pageant” in which committee members had “no clear idea what they were looking for.”

The official job description, one person says, ‘describes a combination of Superman and Einstein, with a little bit of Moses thrown in’

Echoed another community official, “If they know what the job is and the type of person they are looking for, how can the field be so wide and diverse?”

To some, the problematic job description may reflect poor management within the United Synagogue itself, as well as a lack of clarity about the organization’s own sense of purpose and identity.

According to the local rabbi, “arrogance is at the heart of it.”

Members of the United Synagogue, he says, were convinced that the chief rabbinical position “was the best job in the Jewish world today, and that they will be inundated with phenomenal candidates. They thought they’d sit back and have [applications] raining down on them.

“It has a certain authority and prestige, but actually, it’s not such a great job. There are plenty of rabbis in the United States with [congregations of] 600 families who get paid better, sleep better and are in control of the direction of their synagogue. [The chief rabbinate is] a very glamorous straightjacket. Anglo-Jewry tends to be very arrogant and unrealistic about its role on the wider stage and the role of the chief rabbi within Anglo-Jewry. Both have eroded over the years.”

Given all this, another rabbi suggests, the composition of the search committee did not help. Of the eight members, three are current or past presidents of the United Synagogue; one is the organization’s treasurer, and one is the vice president.

With so many “big beasts,” he says, there are too many dominant personalities, and no one to take the lead on decisions.

Right now, the committee’s choice is simple: to go with Mirvis or carry on looking. Either way, frustration is building.

The office of the current chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, has confirmed to The Times of Israel that he is negotiating to take up a chair at King’s College, London, where he is currently a visiting professor in the department of theology and religious studies.

Come September 2013, Lord Sacks clearly has plans.

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