Will brilliant Ben be future Chief Rabbi?

Doreen Wachmann chats to a high-flyer who could eventually take our prime rabbinic position

BRITAIN'S academic expert on the British Chief Rabbinate is giving up a high-flying Civil Service career to study in America to become a rabbi.

Manchester-born Dr Ben Elton became an expert on the British Chief Rabbinate after the publication of his London University history PhD thesis Britain's Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880-1970.

His views were recently in great demand in the lead-up to the selection of Britain's next Chief Rabbi.

Dr Elton, who advocates an open and inclusivist approach to the non-Orthodox, is predicting a short 10-year interim term for Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, at the same time as the chief rabbinate guru himself is training for the rabbinate in a unique American institution which encourages just that.

Could this make him a leading contender in the British Chief Rabbinate race in the next decade?

Only time will tell, but the indications look pretty promising.

Dr Elton grew up in Salford, a regular attender at Holy Law Congregation where he was regularly to be seen sitting next to his dad, Bury director of public health and Outreach chairman Dr Peter Elton and younger brother Daniel, a former Jewish Telegraph reporter.

Mum Mavis is a retired teacher and bereavement counsellor.

Dr Elton first became interested in Anglo-Jewish religious history while reading history at Queens College, Cambridge, where he gained a scholarship and a first-class degree with distinction.

He told me: "I realised through my work on mixed choirs in the United Synagogue that the halachic attitudes and policies of Chief Rabbis had been misunderstood."

His undergraduate work on the topic was eventually published in Jewish Historical Studies under the title Did the Chief Rabbis move to the right? A case study -the mixed choir controversies 1880-1986.

This research eventually led to his doctoral one in which he defended the orthodoxy of the late Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz against historians who had accused him of being a Conservative.

Over the years, Dr Elton's keen interest in Jewish religious history became more than an academic pursuit as, living in London, he adopted a more observant lifestyle. But his first profession was in the Civil Service where he served as Justice Appointments Commission head of equality and fair treatment, a policy adviser on constitutional reform, prison sentencing and data protection, private secretary to the Lord Chancellor and parliamentary assistant to MP Helen Southworth. After nine years in the Civil Service and as a parliamentary assistant, he decided to take a sabbatical.

But he became so enthused with yeshiva life that he has decided to train for the rabbinate.

He said: "I had completed a PhD in Jewish history part-time and published a book. But I wanted to spend more of my time pursuing academic studies and learning Torah."

Dr Elton was drawn towards Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York, which combines pastoral training for the rabbinate with a diversity of Orthodox approaches from modern Orthodox, religious Zionist to even rigidly chassidic Satmar.

He said: "The yeshiva has a tremendous culture. All the rabbinic lecturers are imbued with a profound love of Torah and yirat shamayim (fear of heaven).

"They are Torah scholars from different streams - Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Har Etzion (religious Zionist) and even Satmar chassidim.

"The yeshiva has certain expectations, but there is room for diversity. All students are expected to have an open and inclusive orientation, to look for ways to relate positively and respectfully to non-observant and non-Orthodox Jews and to create more opportunities within halacha for women, as well as a sensitivity towards excluded groups."

He continued: "There is complete commitment in the yeshiva to intense engagement with the texts and mastery of halacha so that graduates can pasken (make decisions on Jewish law) for their communities, as well as on finding and sharing religious meaning.

"There is also a strong emphasis on pastoral training, which takes up a number of afternoons a week, so that rabbis can serve their congregants' needs."

The yeshiva originally made an exception for Dr Elton to come part-time for a year and not complete the full rabbinic training programme.

Buthe said: "After a few months I was so enthused by the learning and the wider mission of the yeshiva that I decided to remain in New York, finish semicha (rabbinical ordination) and pursue a career in the rabbinate."

He hopes to graduate in 2015.

Meanwhile, Dr Elton spends a lot of time before Shabbatot and festivals travelling the USA to address different synagogues.

He is currently an intern in Washington Heights Congregation, New York, and in Washington's National Synagogue.

On graduation, he intends to remain initially in the USA, gaining rabbinic experience.

After that, he says, "I may return to the UK as a more senior rabbi, but I have no firm plans - my hope is to be a historian and a rabbi."

And his historical research on Anglo-Jewry is still continuing.

He is currently writing A Religious History of the Jews of Britain since 1066 and was recently awarded a Tikvah Fund scholarship which involved three months of intense high-level seminars on Jewish thought and culture and will involve a research project on Pre-War Enlightened Orthodoxy in New York.

While Dr Elton looks to the past in his historical research, British Jewry can look to the future in the hope that he returns to our shores and even eventually takes our prime rabbinic position.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph