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In the Press: Mirvis brings in cash for Excellence

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The Chief Rabbi speaks to the Jewish Chronicle’s Simon Rocker about the purposes of the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence, which has begun by primarily providing funding to synagogues for additional educational and cultural programming, but will spearhead further community-strengthening initiatives in the future. 

‘Mirvis brings in cash for Excellence’

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis remembers the episode well. Some 15 years ago, as a United Synagogue minister, he was mentoring a younger colleague in an outlying community who had come up with a “fantastic idea” — a Friday night dinner for the under-40s.

“He believed he could get about 50 people to come,” Rabbi Mirvis recalled. “The gap between what he could charge people and what it would cost came to about £5 a head, so he needed £250.” But when he went cap in hand to his synagogue officers, they said they couldn’t afford it. So he “dropped the idea and stopped dreaming. His shul continued to stay on the launch-pad without any lift-off.”

The lesson was that “it doesn’t take a huge amount of money to provide for creative programming. And the majority of our shuls don’t provide for this in their budgets.”

It was his determination that such initiatives should not be stifled through lack of money that has led to the creation of the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence. It will be a key department of his office and critical to the vision, spelt out in his installation address, of transforming synagogues from “houses of prayer into powerhouses of religious, educational, social and cultural excellence”.

‘His determination that such initiatives should not be stifled through lack of money led to the creation of the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence’

Although some large synagogues had been doing well, “the majority of our communities have been in their comfort zone — having services, kiddushes, the annual melaveh malkah and quiz evening and that’s about it. But now, thankfully, we are talking about genuine communal activity in a very exciting way.”

Every month, the CRE awards grants to support local projects such as a community Shabbaton in a hotel, a visiting scholar in residence, or a Friday night service for young families. The CRE has a director, Rachel Shababo, and an allocations board which awards grants ranging from a few hundred to several thousand pounds from “a significant kitty” he has raised.

In less than six months, it has approved 49 applications from 39 communities under the umbrella of the Chief Rabbinate — from Staines to Highgate in the capital and from Cardiff to Newcastle. “An important condition for receiving our support is that it must be something the community has never done before,” he said.

‘In less than six months, it has approved 49 applications from 39 communities’

Rabbi Mirvis and his wife Valerie will be spending two weekends away at Shabbatons in the coming weeks, one organised jointly by two London communities, the other by four regional synagogues. “It’s an important activity for community bonding,” he said, “an atmosphere through which religion is not imposed, it is enjoyed.”

Northwood Synagogue held a Saturday night social with Ashley Blaker, a co-writer of Matt Lucas’s new series Pompidou. In Glasgow, Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue is being helped with funding for a visiting educator to run explanatory Shabbat services.

The week before last, Birmingham Central Synagogue ran a day trip to Jewish London. “It was marvellous,” the Chief Rabbi said. “They take a coachload of people, go to JW3, the Jewish Museum, enjoy a kosher restaurant and we put on a top lecturer on a topical issue for them. It’s such a simple idea, not expensive. We helped them to plan it and to cover any shortfall, so it’s achievable.”

Two new learning programmes — one in Hertfordshire, the other in London’s West End — are also benefiting from CRE investment.

He is particularly pleased to see a “snowball effect”. Once a community holds a successful event, it is encouraged to try something else. “Our rabbis are becoming more imaginative, more ambitious,” he said.

The CRE will also oversee another scheme due to take off this year — the twinning of larger communities with smaller ones. He wants more congregations to follow the lead of Pinner Synagogue, which recently arranged a weekend visit to Portsmouth. He hopes this year’s Shabbat UK event in autumn will feature a number of twinning arrangements.

‘Once a community holds a successful event, it is encouraged to try something else’

“I am very committed to the regions and our smaller communities,” he said. “The provincial communities are very often outstanding in terms of the commitment shown. We need to guarantee our Jewish identity will be preserved in all of these centres in the best possible way for as long as possible.”