Special Interview
UK Chief Rabbi's Plan to Fight Jewish Apathy

Somewhere along the line Jews lost touch with what synagogues are actually for; UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is determined to fix that.

Ari Soffer , | updated: 15:31

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Office of the Chief Rabbi

Synagogues are commonly known as Jewish houses of prayer - and of course that is their primary purpose.

Yet the common Hebrew term for a synagogue (or shul in Yiddish) is not "beit tefillah" (house of prayer) but "beit knesset," translated literally as "house/place of meeting." Indeed, particularly in the Jewish diaspora, synagogues traditionally doubled as community centers of sorts - serving as anything from venues for weddings and other celebrations, to soup kitchens for the poor. 

Perhaps even more important than their practical purposes, they were also places where communities met to share powerful religious experiences beyond prayer. In Baghdad, for example, following the reading of the Scroll of Eicha (Lamentations) on the eve of Tisha B'Av, the men of the community used to sleep on the stone floor of the main synagogue as a sign of mourning, waking together at sunrise for an emotional prayer for the return to Zion and rebuilding of the Temple.

As Jewish communities in the Diaspora continue to battle assimilation and grapple with a waning sense of Jewish identity among many young Jews, Britain's Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis believes restoring the function of synagogues as "batei knesset" is more crucial now than ever before.

Rabbi Mirvis has had plenty of experience guiding communities on a local and national level. He previously served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1985-1992), and then left to become rabbi of London's Modern Orthodox Western Marble Arch Synagogue after its previous rabbi - Jonathan Sacks - became Chief Rabbi.

But the role most London Jews know him best for is his subsequent position as rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue, also known as "Kinloss." There, he turned a relatively small synagogue into one of the largest in Europe.

As Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, he presides over the United Synagogue (an Orthodox movement, not to be confused with the American group of the same name) - the largest synagogue movement in Europe.

I met with Chief Rabbi Mirvis at his home in north London, and heard how his vision is already breathing life into British communities large and small - and how he thinks even Israelis can learn from UK Jewry's example.

Since taking office in 2013 you have pushed hard to breath new life into previous dying communities, and particular to change the way synagogues in general function - could you outline, briefly, your vision?

Chief Rabbi Mirvis: I would like to transform houses of prayer into powerhouses of religious, social, educational and cultural excellence. There are already many communities where we see a lot happening (in this regard), but I would love every shul to become something well beyond a place for tefillah (prayer).

As Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth countries I have prioritized our communities in terms of the connection that I have with the people... I have visited and continue to visit numerous communities, and through my office we are investing heavily in communities throughout the country.

For example, I founded the Center for Rabbinical Excellence (CRE), which gives help and financial support and assistance to rabbis and communities to engage in new projects. It has already worked quite spectacularly.

How so?

We're starting to change the landscape of Jewish community life in the UK, so communities know we cherish them and cherish every person within them regardless of the size of the community. 

For example our twinning program, where we're twinning every community with another one in the UK, means that communities that are small are being helped by larger communities. 

Also, I have made a commitment to ensure that every single community will have a Rabbi. There are many communities which are too small to have a full-time Rav, but I am building up a panel of rabbanim to be available to communities on a part-time basis. Even when there are just a few Jewish people we need to be there for them, to look after them, to promote Jewish excellence.

The response has been enormous... I'm trying my best to give people the sense of confidence in their own ability and their own Judaism.

Our Shabbat UK last year - part of the wider Shabbat Project which was founded in South Africa - was something quite extraordinary. We're repeating it this year God-willing in October. That was due significantly to the confidence people have in their communities, the increasing ability to raise the bar, to dream and actually achieve those things. As a result, the connection people have with Torah and Mitzvot has certainly been strengthened,

There has been a trend in the past few years, even decades, whereby smaller communities are getting smaller, even disappearing, as people migrate to larger communities such as London and Manchester. Are you hoping to counter that through all of these efforts - to preserve the smaller communities, many of which have long and colorful histories - or is this something you see as inevitable?

The trend you're referring to is a worldwide trend; even away from the Jewish community there is a trend for people to move from rural, or agricultural regions, to urban centers. There are some things you can't control. But within that context we still thank God have some very impressive communities and the point I make is that regardless of size, wherever there are Jewish people we care about them and we will provide the facilities they need to help them function as Jews.

Meeting with local communities Ed Horwich

One example of how we do this is the "shabbaton" - we haven't created the idea, it's a very well known concept - but we found within the UK Jewish community very few have had a weekend retreat away with their community... they simply can't bridge the gap between what people can afford and what it costs. Thanks to our CRE baruch Hashem we have dozens of communities staging shabbatonim. And where communities aren't big enough to do it by themselves we have clusters of communities - two, three or even four at once - holding joint shabbatonim.

I attended one such shabbaton just recently, with four small communities who had never done anything like it before. It was incredibly powerful... That one weekend experience has energized those communities immeasurably - and this came about through sowing the seeds of the idea, empowering the communities and providing funding.

So it's essentially about returning to the initial function of a "beit knesset"?

It's precisely that.

What I see is that this is something that Israeli communities can learn from, because in Israel a shul is usually just a beit tefillah, whereas in the Diaspora it is more of a communal center. In the Diaspora, the more you're connected to the beit knesset, the more you're connected to your Judaism...

So how can you export this idea, particularly, as you say, to Israel, where people don't feel they need that point of connection because everything around them is Jewish?

I have seen in Israel a number of examples of "kehillah centers," and not merely batei tefilla, and wherever they exist they enhance life incredibly. People come to the beit knesset to do the things they enjoy doing, and not merely to pray. Where that happens one realizes that one's Torah connection is all-encompassing, and that it permeates to all aspects of one's existence. The rabbi of the synagogue becomes not merely someone who gives a sermon or issues a halakhic ruling - he becomes a friend, he becomes somebody who's interested in your life, who can discuss regular features of your life with you, and who has insights that will inspire you. That's what rabbis in the Diaspora do.

In a beit knesset here I can discuss anything from football to politics with people, and provide certain elements of inspiration too. In Israel unless you're a student coming to your rabbi for a halakhic ruling, you wont engage with the rabbi. 

There also needs to be a focus on mobilizing the community through chesed activities. Chesed (performing kind acts/good deeds) is a very important feature of Jewish communal life, because our relationship with our fellow man is such an integral part of our relationship with God. I want our Jewish communities to excel in acts of charity, in acts of kindness, and thank God we're also doing very well in that regard.

I imagine you see youth movements as playing a key role here, since we're talking about the young people who will form the future of these communities? You yourself have a longstanding relationship with Bnei Akiva for example...

Yes, definitely, we have many great youth movements here in the UK.

So you are aware of the real challenges these groups face today. They need to compete with a culture in which kids have unprecedented access, opportunity and mobility - particularly via social media - to all kinds of things previous generations could never even dream of. It means that often it's an uphill struggle to get them to take part in traditional communal events, and as a result you have a growing gap between old and young. How do you get kids to come, to engage? How can a shul compete?

I think the first starting point is the home. You've got synagogues, you've got schools, you've got youth movements, you've got cultural centers - but it all needs to start at home. Where you've got strong family life you've got strong Jewish communities and then you have a good society. So we need to encourage parents to raise their children in a healthy manner, in a responsibly Jewish manner... and then ideally what happens in the shul, in the school, in the youth movement comes to supplement and refine and enhance what is already learned from home.

Unfortunately, in many cases we find that we're starting on the left foot; because so many children are not receiving a strong, solid, basic Judaism in the homes, there is added pressure on us to deliver in other areas.

Schooling is also of huge importance of course, and the more children go to good Jewish  schools the better. That's why as Chief Rabbi I am promoting the cause of our Jewish schools and the importance of good Jewish education. 

But youth movements are of course crucial, because of the influence of peers. When you ask a young person "Why are you going to this particular event?" the answer will have less to do with ideology and more to do with "chevra". People go to where their friends are, they follow like sheep. and therefore we need to create a social environment whereby people will feel comfortable crossing the threshold and in that chevra doing something of huge value.

Our Jewish youth movements are having a mixture of success right now - some are doing very well, others are doing less well. Within the United Synagogue we have created the Tribe youth movement which thank God is doing very well... Because of my commitment to youth movements I'm going to be spending a day in Bnei Akiva camp in Holland and Tribe camp in Belgium - I want to educate those children and at the same time I want to show them and their families that I care about them and I will go to wherever they are.

I went to pray this morning at the shul I used to attend - it's a place that really excels in the areas you mentioned - but I did a double-take when I saw the new security measures: a huge double gate, barbed wire... We all know that there's been a rise in anti-Semitism here in the UK - even if it's nothing compared to levels on the European continent - but how do you balance keeping a synagogue open, accessible and a place of positive energy, while at the same time providing this kind of foreboding, albeit necessary, security?

Unfortunately anti-Semitism is a problem, and on the continent there have been horrific attacks against Jews and Jewish property, so it is important we take precautions. But baruch Hashem in the UK our Jewish community is in a healthy state. We are cautious because we know that there is a need to be, but this does not in any way inhibit us from carrying on with our lives, from going to shul, from our children attending Jewish events.

Perhaps it hit you because you haven't been here for a while, but for us it's a way of life. And while there are some figures out regarding anti-Semitic attacks, broadly-speaking we are blessed here in Britain with a government which considers anti-Semitism not just a threat to the Jews but to all of society, a police force that is absolutely determined to protect the Jewish community, and the vast majority of Jewish people here have confidence in living here and in having a full Jewish life.

On to a different yet related topic. Much of this anti-Semitism has been coming against the backdrop of events in the Middle East; specifically, you have extremists using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a pretext to attack Jews in general. As a result, it can be intimidating for activists, or Jewish students on campus, to express their support for Israel and as a result many hesitate to do so.

How has that environment impacted on the way British Jews relate to Israel? Has it changed anything?

I'm the first Chief Rabbi [out of 11 in total since 1704 - ed.] to have received my smicha (ordination) in Israel. I'm a lifelong, passionate Zionist and I'm proud of the fact that the British Jewish community has a strong connection to the State of Israel. And it works both ways: British Jews have contributed very significantly to life in Israel. Many have made aliyah, and there are many who have not made aliyah but who visit Israel regularly, who holiday in Israel, send their children to study or have their gap year in Israel, who own property in Israel, and actively support Israel.

The State of Israel gives lots of support to the British Jewish community, and indeed ours is a community that has been inspired by Israel in so many ways. The connection is a very strong one, a very meaningful one.

Obviously not all Jews speak with one voice on political issues... but I am proud of community's continued strong relation to Israel.

British Jewry, like other communities, is battling some worrying trends in terms of loss of Jewish identity and assimilation. On some university campuses for example you have Jews hiding their identity or even, in extreme cases, joining radical anti-Zionist groups. How can such trends be combated?

Assimilation is a major challenge within all Jewish communities - it's a challenge also in Israel. Battling assimilation must be one of our top priorities.

We encounter assimilation at the same time as we celebrate a return to Jewish commitment for many, and thank God we have so many thousands of people who have rediscovered their Jewish identity - so there is intense activity at the extremes.

But unfortunately there is a lot of apathy in the Jewish world.

When people ask me what are our main challenges I identify the three As: Assimilation, anti-Semitism and Apathy. Assimilation is happening from within our own ranks; anti-Semitism is a threat posed to us  from outside our ranks; Apathy is something people aren't really expecting you to talk about, but it's there, and apathy exists both within the ranks of those already committed and those not committed (to Judaism).

We need to bring passion back into Jewish life. If there's one thing I'm wanting to do within our communities in terms of our support for Israel for example, it's that we need to be more passionate, because it really does mean so much to us. We need to remove those elements of apathy that are hindering our capacity to express ourselves in a Jewish way.

You mentioned universities; I just held a meeting with the heads of the Union of Jewish Students, people who are running all the JSocs in the UK during the new year, to discuss with them the agenda they have. One of my top priorities is visiting campuses to engage with students, to support, to give them chizuk and the hear challenges they are facing.

You have for example a growing BDS movement, which has a clear element of anti-Semitism to it. But I also stressed to them the sense of opportunity they have in university - an opportunity to learn, to engage, and to express their Judaism in positive ways.

In short, as I said, it's all about injecting passion into Jewish life - into our connection to Israel, to our people, and to our personal commitment. If we don't have that passion it will be picked up by our children and that's when Jewish identity begins to erode.

Viktor Frankl, the great Logotherapist, famously said: We shouldn't only have something to live with - we need something to live for. I think that's a key message for our age. Ours is an age in which people more than ever before have something to live with - and it's a very empty life. We need to deliver with passion something to live for.


It's really what we've been talking about until now.

So much is reflected on children from what they see and breath in their homes. 

Regarding education - before the advent of the internet we were already saying how much our children could be influenced - from the TV, from their friends, from the street. Today at the press of a button people are open to be influenced and inspired and guided by things right around the world, and they're educated either positively or negatively by what they see. So we have our work cut out for us. We need to be sophisticated and provide top of the range facilities for our schools. We need to be aware of the challenges; for example, many children have a limited attention span so we need to grab what attention they do have to inspire them.

Shabbat UK, which I mentioned earlier, was a fantastic example. The result was over 100,000 people connected with Shabbat, and the success story this year is going to be even greater.

Why did we succeed? What I've realized is that often, you've got advertising companies which try their best with the product they have. It helps to have a good product - if you've got a dud product you can go a certain way but no more.

We're blessed because Shabbat is the ultimate product! Anything Hakadosh Baruch Hu has given us is perfect, and once you present it well people go for it, they will buy into it - and that is the key to our Shabbat UK success.

The Torah is perfect. What we need to do is perfect the way of presenting it, of selling it. It needs to be done in a way that matches our times, that suits our generation - and if we get the right recipe we've made it.