In the movie version of his life, someone might tell Immanuel Jakobovits, “You’re going out a rabbi, but you’re coming back a lord.” In the real version, he simply grasped his boat-shaped bicorne hat in his left hand and walked solemnly into the debating chamber of Britain’s House of Lords. Then in a ceremony dating back to the Middle Ages, Jakobovits, garbed in a red velvet cape with white fur trim, knelt before the bewigged lord chancellor and presented a letter from Queen Elizabeth II. The document gave him the title of Baron Jakobovits of Regent’s Park (an area near his London home) and authorized him to join England’s upper house of Parliament, where no rabbi has ever been seated before.
For the 67-year-old Jakobovits, England’s chief rabbi since 1967, the ceremony marked, he says, “the elevation of Judaism as well as personal recognition.” The other lords are hereditary nobles, bishops of the Anglican church or secular leaders honored by Britain’s prime ministers, whose recommendations are carried out by the Queen. Still, the break with tradition was hardly a surprise coming from Margaret Thatcher. The current prime minister has, in the words of Chaim Bermant, a leading Jewish writer in London, “an almost mystical faith in Jewish abilities.” Since she took office, Thatcher has appointed four Jews to her senior cabinet, a number unprecedented in British history.
Thatcher seems to have a particularly high regard for Jakobovits, who shares her conservative views on most social issues, including her opposition to abortion. When the Church of England issued an urban policy report in 1985 accusing the government of callousness toward black and Asian immigrants, the rabbi responded stingingly in favor of “self-help as a means whereby we make ourselves useful.” By some accounts Jakobovits has become the P.M.’s favorite cleric of any faith.
Jakobovits plays down his philosophical links to Thatcher, saying simply, “It so happens our views converge.” When they happen to diverge, the chief rabbi—officially Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth of Nations—has publicly said so. His vehement opposition to homosexuality and extramarital sex, for instance, led him to denounce the government’s ad campaign encouraging the use of condoms. The Commonwealth’s roughly 330,000 Jewish citizens do not always agree with “the Chief,” as he is called, but his forcefulness and independence are respected. Jakobovits, who considers it his “duty” to speak out, has taken a brave stand on what he sees as Israel’s repressive actions against rioting by Palestinians in its occupied territories, stating that the Jewish nation must set a moral example and “there is no religious reason” why Jews cannot negotiate a settlement. One of his colleagues, the former chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, responded in unusually harsh words, urging Jews the world over to “spew this dangerous man from our midst.”
Rabbi Jakobovits, who, says author Bermant, “has the bearing of a well-kempt prophet,” spent the first 15 years of his life in Berlin. Though his father, also a rabbi, moved the family to London in 1936, Immanuel lost countless relatives and friends in the Nazi Holocaust and still cannot bring himself to speak his first language—German—in public. Nor has he returned to Germany “to walk on the soil soaked with the blood of millions of Jews.”
In his new home, he learned to speak English fluently (though he still has a slight accent), but continued to follow strict Orthodox teachings. After studying at the University of London and a rabbinical seminary, he married a Paris rabbi’s daughter, Amelie Munk, with whom he has six children (five born during a stint as chief rabbi of Ireland in the ’50s) and 30 grandchildren. For nearly a decade he was rabbi of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue. While in the U.S., he condemned as antireligious the Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools. England’s Orthodox synagogues made him their chief rabbi 21 years ago, but only over the objections of Jews who thought he was too rigid—and after two other candidates had turned down the position.
In England, Jakobovits has presided over a Jewish community that he says is more “backward-looking” and more “discreet” than America’s. On the eve of his ennoblement, he described himself as “a salesman of antiques,” adding, “the value of what I sell is that it has endured.” He is likely to keep selling. “I have been elevated,” he said, “not because I renounced my Jewish beliefs or modified them, but because I held strictly to them and proclaimed them without adulteration and without concessions.”
—Written by Fred Bernstein, reported by Roland Flamini