Rabbi Meir Soloveichik courted for post of British chief rabbi, Times of Israel learns

Sources near the selection process say young American rabbi’s qualities are reminiscent of those of Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is set to step down in September 2013

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (photo credit: courtesy)
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (photo credit: courtesy)

A young rabbi who is considered one of the brightest in America is being head-hunted for the post of British chief rabbi, The Times of Israel has learned.

Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious synagogues, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. He is also the great-nephew of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, known as “the Rav,” who was the leader of American Modern Orthodoxy until his death in 1993.

“He is expected in London within a few days,” said a source close to the selection process. “My sense is that’s who they want.”

Another source, a senior British community leader, said that Rabbi Soloveichik had the behind-the-scenes backing of the current chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.

“He’s pushing Soloveichik in a discreet way… He is becoming more engaged in the process,” he said.

The source – who, like everyone observing the process closely, requested not be named – said that Rabbi Sacks was concerned about finding a candidate who would have a national profile, like his own, and believed that Soloveichik was, in many ways, a man in his own image.

“Sacks and his advisors realize that there is a legacy issue here, and he doesn’t want to preside over an office that is then downgraded,” the source said. “There may be some timing issues with Soloveichik but Sacks is pushing that if they can get [Soloveichik], they should wait for him. When Sacks was appointed, he then spent a year learning in Israel. So it would not be unprecedented.”

However, sources close to the chief rabbi strenuously denied that he was backing any candidate, while another source with knowledge of the selection process said that “the chief rabbi has kept resolutely out of it. He’s been incredibly sensible and aloof; he’s kept right out of it.”

Rabbi Sacks is due to step down in September 2013. There have been very few leaks about the search for his replacement, which is currently nearing the end of the first round of interviews.

The main two candidates are widely assumed to be Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue, one of the flagship Modern Orthodox congregations in North London, and a former chief rabbi of Ireland; and Rabbi Harvey Belovski, rabbi of Golders Green United Synagogue, another prestigious shul in the heart of Jewish London. Foreign candidates are rumored to include Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta; Daniel Beller, a British rabbi who made aliya 15 years ago to Ra’anana, where he heads the Shivtei Yisrael congregation; and Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks (United Synagogue)
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks (United Synagogue)

Since Rabbi Sacks announced his retirement in 2010, there has been vigorous debate among British Jews regarding the role they would like the next chief rabbi to fulfill. 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. Rabbi Sacks was perceived as acting as a spokesperson for the Jewish community to the outside world, while taking a hands-off approach to pressing internal communal issues such as women’s roles in Orthodoxy, interdenominational relations and the direction of the London Beth Din, which is widely perceived as too Haredi for Britain’s centrist Orthodox community.

It seems that sentiments are divided over whether these roles should be continued, reversed, or perhaps dropped in favor of an altogether new model. The strength of most of the rumored candidates is generally acknowledged to be in internal affairs.

If Rabbi Soloveichik is indeed being actively courted, it may be an indication that the selection committee has decided that a more Sacks-ian model is necessary.

Soloveichik, who is in his mid 30s, is known for his extraordinary intellect – some say it rivals that of Sacks – and for his charisma as a public speaker.

“Like Sacks, he is wonderful at presenting Judaism to those who are curious about it but are not interested in it in terms of personal observance,” says the source close to the search process. “He can speak to unaffiliated people, to people of other faiths. He is interested in being the Jewish face to non-Jews. He is not interested in the internal structure of the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Soloveichik is also a well-known Anglophile, who regularly lectures on the Jewish aspects of the divorce of King Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon in the 16th century.

The Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, which he heads, sees its mission as cultivating “the Orthodox intellectual and civic leaders of the future.” According to the Center’s website, students are given both a deep Jewish education and philosophical training, and are “guided in learning the art of expressing ideas to the wider society, allowing them to serve mankind by bringing genuinely Jewish ideas to the world.”

“If they’re looking for a [Sacks-like] model, Meir Soloveichik is the right guy,” said the source close to the selection process. However, this same source warned that the community could not afford to neglect its internal affairs.

“Sacks has been a very powerful voice, but the big problems eating away at the United Synagogue have not been dealt with.”

The source speculated that the search committee had been scared off by the enormity of the task, and had concluded that any chief rabbi who attempted to make real changes would be extremely unpopular. Therefore, it was preferable to follow the relatively easier path of media work and scholarship modeled by Sacks.

This would be a “terrible mistake,” they added. “Without real rabbinic leadership, the community will continue to shrink and be rudderless.”

Others close to the proceedings denied that the committee had made any sort of decision about external versus internal affairs.

“The committee is looking for the best person for the job,” they said.

Now matter who is appointed, they “will have their own persona,” the source said. “There are no pre-set ideas. It is completely open-minded. Most people would be very surprised at the range of different styles and qualities that have been looked at. The job specification and people specification are on the [chief rabbi’s] website, and they haven’t changed at all. Nothing has changed.”

The United Synagogue and Rabbi Soloveichik did not return The Times of Israel’s phone calls and emails.

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