Two rabbis at West London Synagogue are stepping up to jointly replace the historic shul’s senior rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger at the end of March.
Rabbi Helen Freeman and Rabbi David Mitchell will share the role of senior rabbi at the 179-year old synagogue, one of London’s largest, with Mitchell “humbled” to become the first gay rabbi to be given one of the world’s major pulpits.
Among Britain’s best-known rabbis owing to her frequent media appearances over several decades, Neuberger has led the 3,000-strong congregation at West London Synagogue (WLS) since 2011, and will now become the shul’s first ever Rabbi Emerita from 31 March 2020, when Mitchell and Freeman take over.
It means all three will oversee celebrations as the shul turns 180 years old next year, when congregants will also mark 150 years in the Grade II synagogue building Upper Berkeley Street in Marble Arch, in the centre of London.
WLS chair Patrick Mocatta, whose family helped found the shul in 1840, said Freeman and Mitchell got the nod after an extensive search, with “interest shown from across the globe”. He added: “They are an exceptional pair, with a synergy between them and an overlap of skills, experience and interests.”
Speaking to Jewish News ahead of the announcement, Freeman and Mitchell said Neuberger’s impact had been seen in several areas, not least the shul’s work supporting asylum seekers and the winter night shelter for the street homeless.
“She enables Jewish principles to be enacted in practice,” said Freeman of Neuberger. “She’s been an inspiration. She’s passionate about tikkun olam (healing the world) and social justice and she’s made that work a reality.” Mitchell agreed that Neuberger had “reinvigorated the synagogue’s programme”.
Asked about their new partnership, Freeman said: “I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you have two senior rabbis; one older, one younger; one male, one female; one brought up Orthodox, the other Reform, so when we say [at WLS] that we’re inclusive and welcome everyone, in a way the two of us personify that.”
Mitchell said: “We both bring different perspectives, which we really appreciate from the other. I might ask things like ‘how does this fit in with the structure and the finance,’ whereas Helen might ask ‘how does this fit with the people and being a caring community’ so they’re different but complementary skills.”
Freeman takes a particular interest in mental health advocacy and interfaith relations, whereas Mitchell, who is among British Jewry’s foremost spokespeople on LGBTQ+ issues, works more with international Reform colleagues across Europe.
Asked about his status as a gay rabbi in a major pulpit, Mitchell said: “I believe this is be the first time a senior rabbinic position of this nature has ever been given to a man and a woman together, and although there are LGBT rabbis out there, I’m not sure any have been appointed to a pulpit of this prestige before… I’m hugely humbled by that.”
He added: “Helen has done more same-sex marriages than any progressive rabbi in this country, but I’m beginning to catch up on her tally. It was only this year that I pipped her to the post on the [LGBT] wedding scorecard!”