Rabbi Mark Winer became the first American-born rabbi last week to become a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. He was honored for promoting interfaith relations.
Rabbi Winer moved to London in 1998 and served for 12 years at the senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue of British Jews. Prior to that, he had served for 30 years as the spiritual leader of congregations in New Haven, Conn., Commack, L.I., and White Plains. He is now director of the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Studies at St. Thomas University in Miami.
Q: Please tell us about this honor.
A: It’s a British honor system, the modern equivalent of the system of knighthood. There are all different kinds of honors given and there is a hierarchy to them. I am getting one on the same level as the Beatles, but not on the same level as Sir Elton John.
Why were you singled out for this honor?
I was there during the period after 9-11, I instantly became the voice of America to the British public. I was an identifiable American serving a British institution. My message immediately was that we could not let the terrorists win by making us hate each other; we have to make the terrorists lose by building interreligious reconciliation and mutual respect.
Where were you at the time of the attacks?
I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I was back to London the very next day. I was called upon by the government to meet with groups of Muslims who were very upset with what happened. They were very upset with the Islamists and Jihadists and wanted to minimize them. They looked to Jewish and Christian leaders for advice about how to quarantine their crazies.
I was one of the main rabbis they counted on to do this because I had an identifiable congregation. I had also spoken in mosques and knew all the imams. And my wife had a regular dialogue with Muslim and Jewish women in our home and in other people’s homes.
Was there anything special about the congregation you served that added to your high profile?
My synagogue in London was built in 1870. It has a congregation of 2,000 families … and is the most influential Reform synagogue in Europe. Because it is so high profiled they wanted someone of my experience to lead them. It was a fantastic experience.
In what way?
I was regularly a part of the national services that they had on special occasions. They had a national service in 2002 commemorating the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and I was the rabbi in Westminster Abbey who represented the Jewish community at the service. I wore my rabbinical robes, and I had a special tallit woven in Jerusalem just for Westminster Abbey so that it would fit in. It was white on white and very plain.
What kind of a service did they hold?
They held services at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey that were Christian services. But they had representatives from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Roman Catholicism. They would allow the other clergy to be present and read a little something. I was regularly the rabbi because the Orthodox rabbi would not come to the church.
Did you have a chance to meet Queen Elizabeth II over the years?
Every time I was in these services the Queen would meet members of the clergy, and I met her also at [Buckingham] Palace when there was a meeting there of the Council of Christians and Jews, a reception for prominent Americans in London, and in 2006 at a reception for the 350th anniversary of Jews returning to England under [Oliver] Cromwell.
What was it like being at the Queen’s Jubilee?
The BBC figured out that I was the only American celebrating it and they asked how I felt because my ancestors had rebelled against English rule in 1776. I said my ancestors were being chased around the steppes of Russia by the Cossacks in 1776 — long live the Queen!