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Hail to the chief: Americans eyed in search for Britain's top rabbi

David Karp / AP, file

Although the official selection committee for a new chief rabbi remains mum, the Jewish press has put Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the leader of a thriving congregation in the Bronx on the most recent short list. Rosenblatt denies that he is a contender for the position.

LONDON — Time consuming, costly and agonizingly difficult: No matter what the scale — from the American presidency to a local youth organization — choosing a new leader is never easy. Throw in a dose of religion, and the process only gets more complicated.

Britain’s Jewish community is currently in the midst of a once-in-a-generation process to select a new chief rabbi. The candidates are numerous, the process secretive and the role wide-ranging.

Whoever follows has big shoes to fill. In a country that has become increasingly secular, the current chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, is an internationally recognized spiritual figure. His influence reaches far beyond the boundaries of the rather small community of several hundred thousand Jews he represents.  In his time as chief over the past 21 years, he has earned a reputation as a national treasure due in part to his frequent contributions to U.K. newspapers and radio programs.


Sacks, who announced he would be stepping down in September 2013, is a widely respected scholar, prolific author, and sought-after speaker. Like his predecessor, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and appointed to the House of Lords, a post that he will hold long after he steps down as chief rabbi.

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Toby Melville / Reuters, file

Britain's Jewish community is currently in the midst of a once-in-a-generation process to select a new chief rabbi to replace highly respected Jonathan Sacks.

When he was appointed, he was widely acknowledged to be the front-running candidate thanks in part to his rabbinic credentials and high-level secular university degrees from Cambridge, Oxford and King’s College London.

This time around however, there are few obvious candidates and speculation in the U.K. Jewish press has been rife as to who will succeed the well-respected Sacks.

Will it be one of three London rabbis, each well respected as scholars and leaders of thriving congregations? Or will the powerful selection committee turn to a candidate from abroad — most likely the United States — and opt for a leader with little local experience, but with fresh ideas and little local baggage?

"We are only looking for the 11th chief rabbi since 1704," says Steve Pack, president of the United Synagogue, the organization spearheading the appointment process. "Out of the 10 who have served, a high proportion was born outside the U.K. While it’s important that the future chief understand Anglo Jewry, being from here or born here isn’t a requirement."

'No choice but to look abroad'
Jewish community insiders acknowledge that there is a very small pool of locally educated rabbis with respected religious and secular degrees.

"Britain has failed to educate a new generation of younger, well qualified rabbis," said Geoffrey Alderman, who writes a weekly column for the U.K. Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle. "The country’s main yeshivot [rabbinical seminaries] that are producing Orthodox rabbis are deemed to be too far to the right. Therefore to find someone who has impeccable Orthodox credentials, who can be relied upon to stand up to the extreme right and who also has a good secular education, you have no choice but to look abroad."

Although the official selection committee remains mum, the Jewish press has put Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the leader of a thriving congregation in the Bronx, on the most recent short list. Yet Rosenblatt, who reportedly visited London in August, denies that he is a contender for the position.

"I am not involved in the CR [chief rabbi] search," wrote Rosenblatt in an email to NBC News. "Like everyone else I will be waiting with interest to learn who will fill the gargantuan shoes of my mentor and friend, Lord Sacks. I hope the next CR will be blessed in his work."

Other Americans bandied about in the press over the last few months include Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Atlanta’s Emory University and judge on the rabbinical court of America, as well as Manhattan-based Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a 35-year-old scholar who has made his mark not only in the Jewish world, but also as a GOP supporter who gave the blessing at the opening of the Republican National Convention in August.

Secret selection
Officially, the chief rabbi is the religious head of the United Hebrew Congregations of the U.K. and Commonwealth, made up of about 140 synagogues, along with schools and other community organizations. He is also head of the beit din, the religious court whose responsibilities include granting divorces, issuing conversions and settling disputes. Perhaps most importantly, the chief is an ambassador, attending state functions and taking part in interfaith dialogue. Sacks even got a coveted invitation to the 2011 royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

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Despite the high-profile nature of the position, the selection process itself is shrouded with secrecy. The eight selection committee members and two rabbinical advisers were required to sign confidentiality agreements - to protect the identity of rabbis that may want to keep their candidacy under-wraps, according to Pack. The committee won’t reveal how many applications it received, or how many candidates it is seriously considering, only saying that there are a "significant number" of applicants from the U.K. and overseas.

"The idea that through this secret process a leader will be chosen to whom the rest of British Jewry will defer is lunacy," said a skeptical Alderman. "This is a peculiar office that was fashioned in the Victorian era when the Jews were fighting for social and legal recognition and they wanted someone to front for them. Over the years, the office evolved and matured to fulfil a certain function, but we now need to move on. The thought of a chief rabbi in the U.S. is laughable."

The notion of having a single leader for all of Britain's Jews is increasingly questioned by a growing proportion of the community. However, the high profile nature of the position forces many to accept that the role does impact their lives, if in no other way than in how British Jews are perceived in the outside world.

"Although he isn’t the chief rabbi of the whole community, he is perceived as having a central role — if not the central voice — and therefore it matters to have someone who is a good communicator, who relates to contemporary issues and who has a voice of wisdom, compassion and intelligence," said Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a leader of the left-leaning Masorti Movement and the rabbi of the New North London Synagogue.

The selection committee hopes to have a candidate in place in the next few months. It is no question that Sacks' successor will face tough challenges in the coming years, from uniting the divided community to battling anti-Semitic currents in Europe, to name but a few.

"The main challenge of the incoming chief will be to keep up the high standards his predecessor has set," said Pack. "We have good candidates, and it will be up to the individual who takes on this role to command the space and speak on behalf of Anglo Jewry."

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