With committee gridlocked on UK chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis emerging as ‘safe choice’ candidate

Panel hopelessly divided in recent vote, leaving London-based, South African-born veteran as ‘status quo’ option

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis will replace Jonathan Sacks as the head of British Jewry. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis will replace Jonathan Sacks as the head of British Jewry. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

After months of interviews, a recent vote on the candidates for British chief rabbi by the selection committee showed no clear leader, throwing the entire process into disarray.

According to sources close to the process, the selection committee held an informal vote before Rosh Hashanah in which members could indicate their first and second preferences for the job. The first preference results were inconclusive, with votes divided among Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Atlanta-based law professor and religious judge; Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York; and others. There was a strong camp which still wished to approach South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. Although Goldstein has so far ruled himself out as a candidate, his name has been repeatedly raised since the beginning of the process and he has support on the London Beth Din.

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

The second preference votes, however, went overwhelmingly to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the longstanding rabbi at Finchley United Synagogue, one of London’s flagship modern Orthodox communities, and former chief rabbi of Ireland. According the sources, committee members decided that since they could not come to an agreement on their first choice, they will seriously explore the option of Mirvis, effectively making him the front-runner.

The other domestic candidate, Rabbi Harvey Belovski of Golders Green United Synagogue in the heart of Jewish London, had his second interview last week and has not been ruled out.

The committee only has a short time in which to settle matters as the incumbent, Lord Sacks, is due to retire in September 2013. According to the official selection schedule, the announcement of his successor should take place in the fourth quarter of 2012 and many had expected an announcement after the Jewish holidays end next month.

If Mirvis or Beloski were appointed, this would bring the search for Britain’s next chief rabbi almost full circle. In the early summer, the job was widely considered to be a two-horse race between the two British candidates.

By late June, reports emerging from the highly secretive committee indicated that members were worried that while the local candidates were able community rabbis, they did not have enough “star power”, particularly following the high-profile incumbent Sacks, and had decided to broaden the search. They approached Soloveichik, a rising star of the American modern Orthodox scene, who was subsequently interviewed both in New York and London, and took far more seriously the candidacy of Broyde, who by the end of the summer was looking like the front-runner.

Throughout this period, however, the committee was dogged by disagreements over the role it would like the next chief rabbi to fill. One approach was to look for a candidate who would continue to represent the Jewish community to the outside world, through media work and publishing, as Sacks and his predecessor Lord Jakobovits had done. Soloveichik, who is known for his outstanding intellect and who recently offered the invocation at the Republican convention in Florida, seemed the most likely, but many considered him too young at only 35, and too right-wing.

Another approach was to look for a rabbi who would address the internal issues of the Jewish community and the United Synagogue, the organization of 60-odd Orthodox shuls that employs the chief rabbi. These include women’s roles, inter-denominational relations and the role of the London Beth Din, which many perceive to be too strident for moderate Anglo-Jewry.

Here, Broyde seemed to take the lead amongst committee members, but many in the wider United Synagogue seemed concerned that his plans to take control of the Beth Din would provoke endless clashes with the powerful dayanim. Like Soloveichik, he also suffered from the inherent disadvantage that as an American, he was unfamiliar with the dynamics of the British community.

According to one source, “The committee had terrible fights over who to consider and under what structure.” During the pre-Rosh Hashanah meeting, “they realized that they would not be able to reconcile their vision issues”. Hiring South African-born Mirvis, who is only a decade or so away from retirement himself, would allow them to postpone substantive decisions.

“There was complete gridlock between the first-tier candidates” — Broyde, Soloveichik and Goldstein — “and no one could attract two-thirds. Rabbi Mirvis attracted everyone’s tepid support.”

Another American candidate, the Riverdale Jewish Center’s Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, who had interviewed in late August and who many had hoped might be a last-minute tie-break, “was liked very much, but [the committee] didn’t think he did anything markedly better than Rabbi Mirvis, who understands what’s going on.”

Another source close to the process said that Broyde actually led the informal vote, but “there was clear institutional opposition as well”. While Broyde was an excellent writer and speaker and his application material was “heads and shoulders above” any other submission, his plans to tackle some of the United Synagogue’s most pressing problems, especially the role of the Beth Din, were ultimately judged too “dangerous and complex” by some members of the committee.

The source added that “no one is happy with the candidates in total and all wish for a better choice. Perhaps one can still be found.”

In the absence of such, Mirvis seems increasingly likely. Highly respected amongst his rabbinic colleagues, he is a good speaker and has a reputation for warmth, but is not considered a bold thinker.

While the announcement of a chief rabbi Mirvis would certainly be welcomed by many in Anglo-Jewry, others seem more resigned than excited.

According to one United Synagogue rabbi, “this is almost a case of ‘let’s just do this and be done with it’.”

Mirvis, he said, “represents the status quo”, and will be unlikely to progress on women’s issues, grapple with internal political issues or “be the star appointment they promised.”

“It’s a shame,” he says, “but a safe choice.”

Mirvis would not comment.

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