When grandees of the United Synagogue lighted upon Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as their choice as successor to Lord Sacks in 2013 they were looking for something different. Sacks was the public intellectual who inspired not just the Jewish community but the whole nation.
Mirvis was the scion of generations of rabbis and a learned orator who had demonstrated his strong ability to build communities at Kinloss in London and elsewhere. Emphasising his community credentials he chose to make his official home in the north London strongholds rather than in the more West End-accessible environs of St Johns Wood.
Mirvis’s community work has been selfless. He has sought to mend those synagogues disrupted and disappointed by rabbinical departures and assisted them in finding appropriate replacements. In the provinces he has sought to promote mergers and improved relationships among shuls at odds with each other.
He has used his north London location as base from which he can reach many different communities over Shabbat. He has turned Shabbat UK into a thing of joy, marked by synagogues the length and depth of the country each sharing prayers and thoughts.
It has not been all roses. In the more public sphere his judgement has been questioned. There has been some very effective work such as when he travelled to join World Jewish Relief bringing assistance to the refugees arriving from Syria and North Africa in Greece.
The pictures of the Chief, sleeves rolled up, greeting refugees of all nations and religions were extraordinarily effective.
Other interventions have been more questionable. He suggested that Jewish students and young people were ‘living in a bubble’ and could play a bigger role in causes such as alleviating poverty in India.
Senior people within the leadership of British Jewry felt that his comments were ill-advised and he might better have addressed refugee poverty in Tel Aviv and the hardships of impoverished Jews in the Ukraine.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s condemnation of Donald Trump as ‘racist’ also looks ill-advised. Sure, some of the things Trump said during the campaign and some of the people surrounding the president-elect have questionable views.
The wise thing with a new leader of the free world would be to give him the benefit of doubt. Trump’s closest adviser Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, is a traditional Jew with a kosher home.
The undertakings made during the course of the election campaign promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and outlaw Israel boycott campaigns on campuses can hardly be regarded as racist or anti-Semitic.
There is no point in British Jewry raising doubts about the most powerful elected official in the world. Better to turn its guns on the right-wing movements closer to home in France, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere where open anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behaviour and views are spreading.
Rabbi Mirvis also is subject of criticism at the community level. A young, strictly-Orthodox friend of mine complained to me that he has been ostracised by his United Synagogue shul for taking part in a ‘partnership’ minyan where women are given a prominent role.
In the period since the arrangements became known he has not been called to the law or asked to assist in the leading of services, something he has regularly been done in the past.
Effort to frustrate initiatives, such as the partnership minyan, which seek to give US women a more participatory role, have shaken my friend’s loyalty to the US but not his faith.
The Chief Rabbi may have some healing to do if he is not to alienate immensely supportive traditional young activists.