Chief Rabbi meets with Pope Francis in the Vatican City
The Chief Rabbi undertook a trip to the Vatican City to meet Pope Francis ahead of the impending 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Nostra Aetate declaration, which had reviewed the Catholic Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions.
Accompanied by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the English leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Chief Rabbi Mirvis represented British Jewry in a constructive and promising discussion with the principal leader of the Roman Catholic faith. On the agenda were a range of topical issues eliciting the mutual concern of faith leaders, including the burgeoning refugee crisis, the scourge of anti-Semitism, an increasingly aggressive secularism and the global persecution of Christians and minority groups. They concluded that an overriding sentiment of intolerance should only bolster efforts to maintain one’s faith.
Valerie Mirvis presented the Pope with some homemade Florentines, while the Chief Rabbi offered a silver apple and honey set to mark Rosh Hashana, along with some thoughtful words. “Whereas the apple is perishable, the honey will always keep. May that combination of the ‘timeless’ and the timely be a blessing.”
Later that day he and Cardinal Nichols participated in a wider discussion programme exploring how the transformations brought about by the Nostra Aetate declaration could be translated further into increased Jewish-Catholic understanding.
Coverage of the Chief Rabbi’s trip in the Jewish Chronicle:
Chief Rabbi delights Pope Francis by taking the biscuit
The head of British Jewry, Ephraim Mirvis, came to the Vatican bearing culinary gifts before getting down to business, writes Michael Freedland.
Ephraim Mirvis’s rather understated approach to being Britain’s chief rabbi was exemplified by his audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican earlier this month.
One of the customary proffered gifts was a box of florentine biscuits, baked by Mrs Valerie Mirvis. The face of the equally low-key pope lit up. “Did you say we should freeze them?”
“Yes,” said Mrs Mirvis. “Then, please freeze them,” said Pope Francis to an assistant, who whisked the biscuits off.
Then they got down to discussing relations between the two faiths in the light of the 50th anniversary next month of Pope Paul VI’s Nostra Aetate declaration, which included ending the traditional prayer of the Catholic Church, blaming the Jews for the Crucifixion.
“I raised with him antisemitism and praised the stance he had taken,” says Mirvis. “I explained my concern for persecuted Christians in the world. I talked about atheism and the increase in secularisation, about our need to preserve our faiths in an intolerant era.”
Mirvis might lack the charisma of some of his predecessors and he has been less visible in the mainstream media — indeed, this is his first interview in a national newspaper in his two years in the role. However, the self-proclaimed “non-stop on-the-go” rabbi has focused more on his pastoral role and been a dynamic presence, visiting Jewish communities up and down the country.
He has set up the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence, aimed at turning synagogues into “powerhouses” of religious education and cultural excellence. “In the first year, 700 programmes have been carried out in more than 60 communities across the UK,” he says. “We are starting to change the landscape.”
In these visits, the South African-born Mirvis’s friendly, down-to-earth manner has proved to be popular. He only wears the robes of office on state occasions (which is also the only time he eschews his usual black “kippa”, or skullcap, in favour of the blue one traditionally worn by chief rabbis).
Mirvis, 58, who is married to Valerie, a social worker for Barnet council with whom he has four sons — a daughter, Liora Graham, died of cancer in 2011 — came to office after a successful term as rabbi of the Finchley synagogue. He is enjoying every moment of his work, even if it means he has less time to follow the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur.
Officially, he is only head of the Orthodox community, which would consider itself “mainstream”. In effect, his writ runs wider, even though neither the “progressive” wing of Anglo-Jewry nor the ultra-Orthodox congregations officially regard him as their head.
He has also been his own man, breaking the example of his two immediate predecessors by going to the annual Jewish cultural festival, Limmud. Previous chief rabbis refused to attend because Reform and other Progressive rabbis were giving lectures. Mirvis went to the festival in a bid to unite British Jewry. “I believe it was very important that I went and am determined to keep doing so,” he says. Besides anything else, it was a “brilliant” way of taking the pulse of his community.
His successful “Shabbat UK” initiative has also had a unifying effect. Communities throughout Britain — not all from his “mainstream” groupings; ultra-Orthodox synagogues are joining in this year — show ways of keeping the Sabbath. It is being repeated on October 23 and 24. Activities include a Jewish bake-off competition — making the plaited Sabbath loaf, the challah.
Having just celebrated his second anniversary in the role, Rabbi Mirvis says that good relations with other religions remain close to the top of his agenda. “There is a section of the office dealing exclusively with interfaith activity and I am encouraging our rabbis to give more time to it,” he says, adding that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, have been guests at his north London home.
“Now there is an urgent need for a Jewish-Muslim dialogue,” he adds. “I’m an optimist and I think it can come about.” Talks are taking place between rabbis and imams that have the full support of the Court of the Chief Rabbi, the Beth Din. The rabbi of the St John’s Wood synagogue, Ivan Binstock, a judge (“Dayan”) of the court, is one of its proponents. The initiative is helped by the fact that Binstock’s congregation is just a short distance from the Regent’s Park mosque.
Mirvis, has been described by the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, as “a great pastor, thinker and humanitarian”. He recently urged British Jews to draw on their own heritage of being refugees in their reaction to the crisis in Syria. “Our heritage must inform our response to this deep and tragic humanitarian emergency,” he said. “I urge our Jewish community to provide a compassionate response.”
He draws much from his upbringing in South Africa, where his late mother ran a teacher-training college for black students and worked in the townships. “I was brought up in a home of a rabbi and rebbetizin (the wife of a rabbi) being very much involved in the Jewish community, but half of the attention in my home was helping the black community.”
Prejudice against his own community has been back in the news and worries about antisemitism are causing the most anxiety in British Jewry since the end of the war. “We need to be concerned,” he says. “Any threat against Jews is a threat to all our nation. Our government has generously contributed to added protection of communal Jewish activities. But panic? No. There are those who have said that what we are going through is analogous to what was going on in Europe in the early 1930s. This is absolutely not the case. Our Jewish community is blessed to be living in a most wonderful country, a society led in a most responsible manner.”
Then there is the question of British attitudes to Israel, concerns heightened by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader whose historical statements about Israel have caused anxiety in the Jewish community. Mirvis refuses to discuss party politics, but says: “Israel has been central to the Jewish faith and the Jewish people — from the moment Abraham and Sarah received the first commandment to uproot themselves from Mesopotamia and go to the Holy Land.”
And Israel today? “I am proud of the successes of modern Israel and I am a passionate supporter. We pray for peace. It is our yearning for a peace accord.”