The rabbi who bridges two communities

The rabbi who bridges two communities

For the JC January 2023 by Jenni Frazer

Growing up in Cape Town in the late 60s, the future Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was passionate about sports. One day his father, Rabbi Lionel Mirvis, took his three sons — Howard, Jonathan and the teen then known as Errol — to a friendly between a South African side and the visitors,Tottenham Hotspur. And that cemented Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s support for his beloved Spurs.

There has been near universal rejoicing in the Jewish community at the news of the Chief Rabbi’s knighthood in 2023 New Year Honours List, an award made in recognition of his “significant services to the Jewish community, to interfaith relations and to education”.

But the new Sir Ephraim Yitzchak Mirvis, according to those who know him well and work closely with him, is much more than a ceremonial individual. His friends and colleagues speak of someone with a wicked sense of humour and “a devastating mimic”, according to one friend, who retains his adoration of football, cricket and rugby, and makes a point of straddling the two worlds of Orthodox Judaism and the wider community in which we live.

Alongside the Spurs fandom, Chief Rabbi Mirvis is deeply musical, (he is a qualified chazan as well as a shochet and mohel) and once entertained the BBC’s Edward Stourton with a rendition of Grace After Meals to the tune of the Match of the Day theme.

This year, 2023, marks the chief rabbi’s decade in the role. It is a mark of the esteem in which he is held that the then Prince Charles attended his inauguration at St John’s Wood Synagogue in north west London. Now that he is king, Charles has invited Sir Ephraim and his wife Valerie to stay overnight at Clarence House on the eve of the coronation on Saturday May 6, to avoid them having to break Shabbat; and last year, after the Queen died, Buckingham Palace brought the timing of a Friday multi faith commemoration event forward, again to accommodate the chief rabbi.

The chief rabbi is the son and grandson of a rabbi and a reverend — though Sir Ephraim has said that his father, originally an engineer, only began working in the rabbinate after the company he worked for, closed, as a result of opposition to South African apartheid. His late mother, Frieda, was principal of the Athlone Teachers’ Training College during apartheid — at the time the only college for “coloured” teachers of pre-school children in South Africa.

One of his oldest friends is Sheon Karol, a businessman who now divides his time between New York and South Africa. The two grew up together, attending the Herzliya School in Cape Town and also the Zionist youth movement, B’nei Akiva.

“Even as a youngster, he was outstanding and delightful”, Karol told the JC. “He was tremendous fun, and never sanctimonious. There was no pomposity, it was just a pleasure to be with him”. Errol’s older brother Johnny, who also qualified as a rabbi but did not practise, was “quietly protective” of his youngest sibling, Sheon Karol said. Sister Lynette married Rabbi Vivian Silverman, formerly of Brighton and Hove Synagogue.

“Cape Town, in those days, was not the most observant of communities”, Sheon Karol said. “But I can’t remember a time when my friend wasn’t going to be a rabbi. His whole goal was not to achieve a title or fame, but to bring people closer to Judaism.”

One way in which he did that was to lead a daily minyan at school — something not made easy by the school authorities. And — despite the fact that Herzliya School was indeed a Jewish school — it took a campaign by the teenage Ephraim Mirvis to persuade the school only to sell kosher food in the tuck shop.

Post high school, the young Mirvis left South Africa for Israel, to attend first Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavne, and then two other yeshivot before qualifying as a rabbi. Initially Sheon Karol did not accompany him. “I went to the University of Cape Town for a year. When I realised I wanted to learn more, I thought I could go to yeshiva for a few weeks in between my first and second years”.

The problem with that was the study method in yeshiva in which the students worked in pairs — the “chavruta” scheme. “Nobody would want to give up their study partner for someone who was only staying in yeshiva for a few weeks. I spoke to Errol, who said he would guarantee me a study partner for every second of every day”.

It turned out that the future Rabbi Mirvis was running a sophisticated hospitality scheme for new yeshiva students from South Africa. Boys would be met at the airport and brought back by taxi to yeshiva, where “not only a study partner had been arranged, but also where you would sit for meals, so you wouldn’t be by yourself. Nobody really wanted to break up their chavruta — but all these boys had previously been helped themselves, so of course they all said yes”.

Once at yeshiva, where in the end he stayed for a year, Sheon Karol soon found that his old friend had persuaded the yeshiva authorities to allow a Thursday night get-together for the South African students. This “very convivial, warm society” featured copious amounts of toasted cheese and a shiur from Mr Mirvis, as he then was.

He received his rabbinic ordination from Machon Ariel, Jerusalem (1978 – 80) and gained a BA in education and classical Hebrew from the University of South Africa. He also received a teaching qualification from the Yaacov Herzog Teachers College in Israel.

Michael Goldstein, president of the United Synagogue, spends more time with the chief rabbi than most in the community. The two speak regularly. “He is very warm and also very principled. I think I have been most impressed by the stand he took against Jeremy Corbyn. It was unprecedented for a chief rabbi to speak out in the way that he did. But for me, it was the way in which he did it. He was intent on doing it, and he brought together a few of us as a sounding board, people of different views. But he was so sure that it was his responsibility to do it — and you can see, when commentators, not in the Jewish world, write about the Corbyn era, that they mark the chief rabbi’s intervention as being so important”.

This was the chief rabbi’s article in The Times in November 2019, a couple of weeks before the general election. In that article, he acknowledged that convention stated that a chief rabbi should stay well away from politics, something with which he agreed. It was, therefore, “with the heaviest of hearts”, that he called upon |the citizens of our great country to study what has been unfolding before our very eyes”. Speaking of “a new poison” which had engulfed the Labour Party, Chief Rabbi Mirvis declared: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I regret being in this situation at all. I simply pose the question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake”.

Jonathan Goldstein, former chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, is a long-time associate of the chief rabbi, whose trust he heads. “I think the main thing about him is his humanity. He has a deep concern for people across all faiths, and he has a desire to be a facilitator and conciliator, while always being very clear about the tradition which he upholds and the values he represents”.

He was one of the people whose opinion the chief rabbi sought before making his Corbyn intervention. “He was very clear in his own mind that he had an obligation and a duty to do it; I think he showed great bravery and conviction in ensuring that his voice was heard. The important thing in issues like this is that it is a card that should be played sparingly, and the chief rabbi understands this”.

His brother Michael Goldstein has seen the chief rabbi “in hundreds of interactions with people, whether it be one-to-one or speaking to a community. He has the most wonderful ability of connecting with people and making them feel very special. I’ve seen that in various positive scenarios, but also when there’s been a difficult message to convey”.

He cited this attribute of “deep empathy” and “mutual respect” as an illustration of the chief rabbi’s way of connecting with the non-Orthodox community. Rabbi Shoshana Boyd-Gelfand has previously spoken of their relationship as one in which “we both approach each other with a twinkle in our eye”. There is an acknowledgment of places of agreement and disagreement — but Rabbi Mirvis put his marker down just days after taking office, when he made it clear that he would be attending Limmud, the cross-communal educational event boycotted by his predecessor (the late Lord Sacks) and other Orthodox rabbis.

It is, of course, not Rabbi Mirvis’s first role as chief rabbi — he was previously chief rabbi of Ireland from 1985-1992, after serving as rabbi of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation. In a sort of “rabbi-go-round”, he succeeded both Lord Sacks’s predecessor Lord Jakobovits in Ireland and Lord Sacks himself as rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London (1992 – 96), before becoming senior rabbi at Finchley United Synagogue (known as Kinloss) in 1996, a position which he held until becoming chief rabbi in 2013.

Between Lord Jakobovits and Rabbi Mirvis as Chief Rabbi of Ireland, there was one of Rabbi Mirvis’s closest colleagues, Rabbi David Rosen. Rabbi Rosen, now the American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, has known the Mirvis family since serving as a colleague of Rabbi Lionel Mirvis in Cape Town.

The pair’s first professional encounter took place before Rabbi Rosen took up his post in Ireland, and had been asked to run Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at the Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya, Israel. After a conversation with Rabbi Lionel Mirvis, Rabbi Rosen met his son — who then served as the chazan for that year’s services. “There were a number of tunes that I learned from him then that I still use today.”

“Then his father contacted me again and said that his son had semicha [rabbinical ordination] and was looking for a position. I said I couldn’t think of anyone better, I’d love him to join us. And that was how he came, both to teach in the Jewish day school and to be minister in Dublin. After I left, he succeeded me as Chief Rabbi of Ireland.”

Rabbi Rosen said: “He was always a wonderful personality, knowledgeable, open, considerate, with a much better temper than me! He was great to work with.” The two men had diminished contact for a time until Rabbi Mirvis became chief rabbi of the UK, because he began deeper involvement in interfaith relations. “He made contact with me to facilitate meetings with the Pope and Muslim leaders.It’s been very nice to renew that contact”.

Rabbi Rosen said that Sir Ephraim strongly resembled his late “remarkable” mother, Freida, both emotionally and physically, and praised her family, the Katz family as “one of the mainstays of South African Jewry”. From her, Rabbi Rosen suggested, Rabbi Mirvis drew his “sincerity, openness towards others, and acceptance of diversity. That’s very important, because there are very few deeply Orthodox rabbis who are open to diversity and pluralism. Obviously, he’s had to learn to be a politician, to steer a fine line between being authentic and true to one’s principles, but also being in a representational position, which is not so simple.”

He particularly applauded the chief rabbi’s 2018 guide to Jewish schools as to how to treat LGBT+ pupils, a document believed to be the first of its kind in the Jewish world. “It’s a mark of the man that he’s an authentic, staunch supporter of Orthodox Judaism, and yet does not allow it in any way to undermine his care and compassion for others”. And, he added: “I think Rabbi Mirvis has shown remarkable spine in negotiating with, and standing up to, different elements of the community.”

Another admirer of Sir Ephraim is Laura Marks, founder of Mitzvah Day and Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish-Muslim women’s network. She said the chief rabbi had been involved with Mitzvah Day “since the beginning” of his role. “Rabbi Mirvis has absolutely embraced it and it’s part of his annual calendar, which is lovely”.

But Mitzvah Day and the annual Ajex remembrance parade coincided, so the chief rabbi “would turn up in his best suit. That is often a challenge. Most people on Mitzvah Day are not wearing their best suits. But he is absolutely game. We’ve had him chopping vegetables with imams, digging in farms, he’s made soup at JW3 — he’s just committed to engaging with people who are making a difference. He’s been so supportive”. Instead of wearing a Mitzvah Day t-shirt, he’d worn a sticker. “I feel it’s the nearest we’re going to get to Rabbi Mirvis wearing a t-shirt, but we want him to be comfortable”, she smiled.

For the charity’s 10th anniversary in 2018, Rabbi Mirvis had “written a beautiful letter which I had framed and now hangs in my house, about how Mitzvah Day had made a difference to the landscape of the community. It meant such a lot to me, it was so personal and not many people would have taken the time to do that. I was really touched.”

She described Sir Ephraim’s wife, Zimbabwe-born Valerie, as “his anchor. All great people need a partner by their side, and he’s certainly got that”. The former Valerie Kaplan was a front-line child protection social worker until May 2012. The couple had five children and now have 16 grandchildren: their eldest daughter, Liora, died of cancer in 2011.

It’s probably impossible for most chief rabbis to have an “off-switch”, but US president Michael Goldstein, in particular, has seen Sir Ephraim in more laid-back mode. “We were crossing Tottenham High Road to get to the [Spurs] ground and he had his yarmulke on. He turned to me and said, is this a cap or a yarmulke situation? I said, it’s up to you, it’s a relaxed atmosphere. So he said, fine, and we walked in, and the first person we ran into was a young guy with a big, black kippah”. The chief rabbi looked at Michael Goldstein. “We both just giggled!”

  • 10 January, 2023