The leader of one Britain’s largest Orthodox synagogues is to become next chief rabbi following a lengthy and divisive selection process to decide who should replace Lord Jonathan Sacks as the figurehead of British Jews.
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who is a former chief rabbi of Ireland, is expected to be formally confirmed as Lord Sacks’ successor tomorrow. He is widely regarded as the “safe choice” after an eight-month process to find the next leader the orthodox United Synagogues, the largest grouping of British Jewry.
As the 11th chief rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis will inherit the traditional role of being seen as the head of British Jews but that role is being increasingly challenged from resurgent liberal and reform wings of Judaism whose stance on issues such as sexuality is more progressive. The Movement for Reform Judaism welcomed him as “the next Orthodox chief rabbi”.
Rabbi Mirvis must also tackle issues which are shared by his Christian counterparts such as declining congregation levels and making traditional religion relevant to the modern world. Despite this month’s census finding that number of Jews in Britain has risen slightly in the last decade to more than 260,000, an additional problem is the large numbers of young Jews marrying outside the community.
The appointment of the 55-year-old new chief rabbi, who is a father-of-four and was born in South Africa, will nonetheless be greeted with relief across Anglo-Jewry following an increasingly fraught search for a successor to the popular and respected Lord Sacks.
Rabbi Mirvis, who currently leads a flagship United Synagogue in Finchley, north London, emerged as a consensus candidate after the committee set up to select the new chief rabbi was reportedly split on other more dynamic figures from within and outside the United Kingdom.
One of his fellow candidates, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, said Rabbi Mirvis was “the right man for the job”. He said: “The present appointment is a critical one confronting the various challenges facing Anglo-Jewry, both inwardly in terms of making traditional Judaism relevant to the 21st century and more broadly in terms of Israel, anti-Semitism and the various challenges we all face collectively.”
Described as “immensely popular” and eloquent, Rabbi Mirvis is nonetheless not considered to be a bold doctrinal thinker and may face an uphill task in achieving the same public profile as Lord Sacks, who has been a regular contributor on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
The son and grandson of rabbis before him, Rabbi Mirvis is regarded as a strong pastor within the Orthodox community, which also faces competition for influence within Anglo-Jewry from a growing ultra-Orthodox community.
In one of his few forays into the mainstream media, he described to The Independent during his first visit to Germany in 2008 how his family were victims of the Holocaust and how he had grown up in a home where German products were avoided. He said: “I didn’t use a Faber-Castell pencil. We wouldn’t step into a Volkswagen car.”
Explaining that this had now changed, he added: “There are still many Jewish people today who would be highly critical of spending a penny in Germany. That’s totally understandable. But I think it is important to support and encourage the good Germans who are moving forward.”