Taking helm, new British chief rabbi puts synagogues at center

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said to focus on the internal challenges of the community, marking a departure from the past

Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)
Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

LONDON — The new chief rabbi of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, will make it a priority to rejuvenate the institution of the synagogue, he said Sunday.

“Traditionally, many synagogues have been just houses of communal prayer. Through my chief rabbinate, we will transform… houses of prayer into powerhouses of Jewish cultural, social, religious and educational excellence,” he said. “The key to achieving this will rest with our rabbis.”

Rabbi Mirvis was speaking at his installation ceremony in central London, which was attended by 1,400 people including Charles, the Prince of Wales; Opposition leader Ed Miliband; Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub; and the outgoing chief rabbi, Lord Sacks.

This is the first time Mirvis has set out his agenda for office in any detail, and his focus on the internal challenges of the community seemed to mark a departure from the past. While Lord Sacks, in his own inaugural address exactly 22 years ago to the day, called for a communal “decade of renewal,” in recent years he has been strongly identified with outreach to the non-Jewish world.

Mirvis, who is only Britain’s 11th chief rabbi since 1704, has a successful track record as a community rabbi, and many hope that he will replicate his local triumphs nationally. As he noted in his address, according to the 2011 census, 26 percent of Jews in the country do not belong to a synagogue.

Amongst those who do, 55% belong to centrist Orthodox shuls such as those run by the United Synagogue, the organization Mirvis heads as chief rabbi, but this is down from 66% in 1990.

Born in South Africa in 1956, Mirvis studied at the Israeli Kerem BeYavne and Har Etzion yeshivahs and was ordained by Machon Ariel in Jerusalem in 1980. After a stint as chief rabbi of Ireland between 1984 and 1992, he headed the prestigious Western Marble Arch synagogue in central London — a position previously held by Lord Sacks — and in 1996, joined Finchley United Synagogue (known as Kinloss), where he was rabbi until earlier this year.

The synagogue, which was floundering on his arrival, is now considered a flagship community with many young members. Mirvis put a particular emphasis on education; founding and directing the popular Kinloss Learning Centre; and supporting the establishment of a new Jewish primary school, Morasha.

In his inauguration he challenged Anglo-Jewry to become “a learning community,” vowed to empower his rabbis, and called on local Jews to show a stronger commitment to caring for the weak and to engage in Tikkun Olam, or healing the world — a concept more commonly associated with the non-Orthodox movements.

Together, they will form the three pillars of his chief rabbinate: education, community development, and social responsibility.

Despite the strong emphasis on internal affairs, Mirvis was not isolationist, expressing concern over the hostilities in Syria and the “terrible atrocities” taking place and calling for a “swift end” to the fighting. He said that “our responsibilities as Jews do not stop with our own community” and said he would be “passionately involved” in building on “the strong relationships we have with other faith communities in this country.”

There was a strong showing of clerics from other religions at the two-hour ceremony, including the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Britain; the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols; Nigel Stock, Bishop at Lambeth, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, a senior member of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Sacks said that Mirvis was “the right man in the right job at the right time,” and urged him to retain a universal vision.

“I have always believed, and acted on that belief, that Judaism is not just for Jews but for the world,” he said, adding that “ours is an age of religious extremism, and religious extremism is always driven by fear: fear of change, fear of loss, fear of a world beyond our control. And it is our task as Jews to say: Faith is not fear. Faith is the antidote to fear… Be a voice, Rabbi Mirvis, of tolerance, gentleness, and generosity of spirit.”

After blessing Mirvis with an induction prayer, the two embraced and Lord Sacks escorted him to the chief rabbi’s seat, which he himself had occupied minutes earlier.

While many in the community expect Lord Sacks to retain a high national and international profile, continuing to publish, broadcast, teach and attend the House of Lords, he was blunt that this was a change of the guard.

Noting that St John’s Wood Synagogue, where the installation took place, was just a few yards away from Abbey Road — where The Beatles recorded many of their hits — he said he was going to paraphrase the words of “one of their best songs, which is one of my favorites: ‘You say hello, and I say goodbye.’”

God, however, was a little slower to catch up. Following the ceremony, Sacks’ beloved soccer team Arsenal played Mirvis’s Tottenham Hotspurs. Despite the fact that Mirvis – who said he was the first chief rabbi “to enter office in the digital age” – tweeted his good wishes to his own team, pointedly including @rabbisacks in his tweet, Spurs lost 1:0.

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