Who are the 50 most influential Jews of 2009?
Rabbi of largest LGBT synagogue, iconoclastic filmmakers and others make up The Forward's annual list.
The New Faces Of Leadership
The Forward 50 began 15 years ago, the brain-child of Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the English Forward, who went in search "of the men and women who are leading the American Jewish community into the 21st century." Many of the names and faces on that original list were well-known stalwarts of the Jewish establishment, players in New York and Washington, powerful benefactors. They were representative of the kind of authority and leadership prevalent in 1994. The men wore suits and ties. The rabbis wore beards.
But examine that list carefully, and you will find intimations of change. A rabbi of the largest gay and lesbian synagogue is there. So is a right-leaning activist with grass-roots appeal.
In the decade and a half since, the dramatic shift in Jewish leadership mirrors larger trends in our society. Just as we no longer go one place for our news, we no longer look to only one powerful person in a position of authority for leadership. This year, in particular, we've seen some of the most established organizations questioned from the outside and challenged from within, while those who are creating and innovating seem to have history's wind at their backs.
So perhaps it's no surprise that only one person on the original Forward 50 list is included here today. And that person ? filmmaker and philanthropist Steven Spielberg ? hails not from Washington or New York, but from Hollywood, illustrative of the way that culture and entertainment are exercising a growing influence on American Jewish life.
Also telling about this year's Forward 50 are the five people selected as the most influential and interesting: a businessman-turned-communal leader, a diplomat and best-selling author, a breakthrough female Orthodox leader and two iconoclastic filmmakers. None has ever been part of the Forward 50.
That may say something about our selection process, informed by the staff's vast experience and assisted by welcome nominations from our readers. It says even more about the changing face of leadership. "There's a shift in authority all over society. Those who once had great authority no longer do," observes David M. Elcott, a professor in public service and leadership at New York University. "Authority is devolving, and that's creating openings for the rise of exciting alternatives for leadership."
One aspect of this process hasn't changed: Each year, the Forward staff debates how to include those Jews whose impact in the past year has been dramatic - and damaging. We take no pleasure in highlighting misdeeds and embarrassments caused by fellow Jews, but they, too, are part of our story.
Consider this: Last year at this time, only those in the know had heard of Bernard Madoff; now his name is synonymous with the worst kind of greed and betrayal. Last year at this time, J. Ezra Merkin's name was associated with his revered, philanthropic family; now he is being sued in connection with his alleged role in Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Last year at this time, few might have guessed that Solomon Dwek, son of a prominent rabbi, was a cooperating witness in an FBI sting that nabbed New Jersey politicians and prominent members of his Syrian Jewish community.
We don't have to look back 15 years for dramatic change. One year will do.
Veteran corporate executive Jerry Silverman took a job on September 30 that was once expected to become the most influential in American Jewish organizational life but wound up being merely the most thankless: president and CEO of the newly renamed Jewish Federations of North America. The organization, previously known as United Jewish Communities, was created in a 1999 merger of three central agencies that served the nation's 157 local Jewish charity federations. Brutal five-year merger talks yielded a new body smaller than the sum of its parts, while the local charities got used to living without central guidance. Since the merger, the agency has seen three CEOs come and go while donations declined. Silverman, 51, spent a quarter-century in the garment trade, first at Levi Strauss, where he led the wildly successful Dockers marketing campaign, and then as a top executive at Stride Rite and Keds. In 2004, yearning for meaning, he moved to the non-profit field and took over the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which promotes summer camping. It's since grown from a $1 million-a-year striver into a $22 million powerhouse. Silverman enters his new job amid near messianic expectations. He just might fulfill them.
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, is one of the more unusual figures on the Washington diplomatic scene. Renowned as a historian and best-selling author, he's a political outsider with no formal diplomatic experience, yet he holds perhaps the most sensitive post in Israeli diplomacy. He's a center-left political pragmatist representing the most right-wing government in Israel's history.
Oren, 54, is a New Jersey native who moved to Israel as an adult and now represents his adopted country back in the land of his birth. Born Michael Borenstein, he received a master's degree in international relations at Columbia University in 1978 and a doctorate from Princeton University in 1986.
In between, he settled in Israel, Hebraicized his name, saw combat in the 1982 Lebanon War, and was arrested in the Soviet Union during a secret outreach mission to Soviet Jews. Familiar to American audiences during the 1990s as a journalist, Oren became a media star with the 2002 publication of his best-selling book, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East." His media savvy put Oren on the ambassadorial short list after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's February election victory.
It didn't hurt that Oren was a longtime fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative think tank funded by Netanyahu allies Sheldon Adelson and Ronald Lauder. Since his arrival in Washington in July, Oren has uncharacteristically landed in the middle of controversy. In August, the State Department reportedly summoned him for a chewing-out over Netanyahu's settlement policies (Oren insisted it was just a friendly chat), and he famously snubbed an invitation to address J Street's founding conference. The spotlight now follows him wherever he goes.
This was a year when the quiet, persistent attempts by Orthodox women to gain a more significant role in religious life took on a new urgency. No single event exemplifies this movement better than the conferral ceremony in March during which 32-year-old Sara Hurwitz took on the brand new title of Maharat in a ceremony led by her teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. In any non-Orthodox denomination, Hurwitz's years of study and sense of calling would have earned her the title "rabbi," but this modest, devout, South African-born mother wanted to remain an Orthodox Jew. Maharat is an acronym describing Hurwitz's many roles - public leader, halachic authority, spiritual guide and Torah scholar.
The title is a compromise she accepted in return for the opportunity to do a job she loves. But even a compromise has consequences. Already, Hurwitz has dramatically broadened the boundaries of acceptable public roles for women in an Orthodox setting and, with Weiss, is establishing a training program for other women who wish to become a Maharat. Weiss called his student "a full member of the clergy, with the distinct voice of a woman." As her voice grows stronger, she is inspiring other Orthodox women to join her powerful, praiseworthy song.
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
They skewer most characters they depict but, after years of portraying disparaging Jews on screen, Joel, 54, (top photo) and Ethan Coen, 52, directed a homage to, and darkly comic caricature of, their Jewish-Minnesotan roots. "A Serious Man" begins with a fable acted out in Yiddish by Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman and legendary Yiddish actor, Fyvush Finkel. It continues by portraying, with tenderness, a farcical version of the suburban Jewish Minneapolis world in which the brothers grew up. The film was such an intense evocation of its milieu that audiences and critics who were neither Jewish nor Minnesotan, including the New Yorker, had little liking for it.
Over the years, the brothers? genre masterpieces from "Blood Simple" (1984) through "Fargo" (1996, two Academy Awards), "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (2000) to "No Country for Old Men" (2007, four Academy Awards), featured characters and communities, the vast preponderance of whom, Jewish or not, were scathingly drawn. While "A Serious Man" has not ended their desire to scathe, at least their "landsmen" were portrayed with some depth and sympathy, not exclusively skewered. Their next project is purported to be a movie version of Michael Chabon?s "Yiddish Policemen?s Union," for which they would take the subject of Jews on frozen plains once more to heart.
The international labor movement this year became the most visible battleground in the efforts to boycott Israel, as a number of trade unions around the world voted to back boycotts of Israel's products and people. Stuart Appelbaum, 57, a graduate of Brandeis University and erstwhile Democratic activist, has led the effort to fight those boycotts. Appelbaum has long been among the most visible and outspoken Jewish labor leaders from his posts atop the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Jewish Labor Committee. (He also became one of the most visible gay labor leaders when he came out this spring.) This year, Appelbaum further asserted himself by getting almost every major American union leader to sign a letter in opposition to the boycotts. Appelbaum also worked with a few other international leaders to put together a new labor coalition to work not only against the boycotts, but also for a two-state solution in Israel. In the United States, Appelbaum's work paid off when Richard Trumka, the new head of the AFL-CIO, appeared at JLC'S conference in late October to declare his support for Israel. Appelbaum's organizations have not only stood up for Israel ? they have been a steady presence in support of more rights for Palestinian workers.
Jeremy Ben-Ami knows marketing. Ben-Ami, J Street's 47-year-old mastermind and executive director, identified an underserved niche (alienated doves hungry for inside-the-Beltway pull), distilled his group's organizational identity into an easy-to-digest message ("pro-Israel, pro-peace") and aggressively distinguished the fledgling lobby from its competition ("established pro-Israel groups" that, as he put it, "have enforced right-wing message discipline on Israel in Congress?). Though only a year-and-a-half old, J Street is already one of America?s most talked-about and controversial Jewish groups.
Its fans - including the 1,500 people who attended its inaugural conference in October - see J Street as a long-overdue breath of fresh air on a stultifying Israel advocacy landscape, while its detractors vigorously dispute its pro-Israel bona fides. Friends and foes alike point to J Street's willingness to go against the communal grain on issues like the Israeli military's operation in Gaza (which it criticized, calling for an immediate cease-fire) and Iran sanctions (about which it has been bearish, pressing for more time for diplomacy). Ben-Ami's strategy has built J Street a passionate base of support on the Jewish left. Now, he faces a bigger challenge: winning over a still-skeptical center.
In addition to his long career at the center of New York's publishing world, Robert Bernstein was the founder in 1978 of the organization that later became Human Rights Watch. He has been regarded as one of America's fiercest defenders of human rights and, in many ways, the father of the nation's movement to hold countries and individuals accountable for violations of these basic tenets.
So it came as a shock when, in an October 19 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Bernstein, 86, denounced the organization he had founded. Pointing to its censure of Israel's actions during the Gaza conflict last winter, he charged that Human Rights Watch was unfairly scrutinizing Israel and aiding those who wish to turn the Jewish state into a pariah. Bernstein's Op-Ed was the most high-profile critique of what has become known as "lawfare," the attempt to use the language of human rights against Israel.
To its detractors, it is the latest front in the war against the Jewish state. Bernstein elevated that debate to a higher plane, triggering a serious conversation about double standards, the rules of warfare, and the question of whether the principles of human rights are being misused for political gain.
The labor movement - with all its internal divisions ? needed a conciliator this year, and Amy Dean did her best to fill the role. Armed with "A New Deal," the call to labor activism she recently co-authored with David B. Reynolds, the 47-year-old Dean toured the country trying to call the labor movement together. She did so from a distinctly Jewish perspective.
Like so many modern Jewish labor leaders, Dean got her start at one of the successors to the old Jewish garment unions ? The International Ladies Garment Workers Union. As Dean rose up the ladder, she became known for building coalitions involving the Jewish world in which she was raised, the labor arena she had joined, and the broader community of social activists. Dean has kept active on all of these fronts, serving for the last few years as national co-chair of the Jewish Funds for Justice and helping to usher the agency through a major merger and period of growth. Just as in the labor world she has called for greater engagement with religious communities, in the Jewish world she has called for greater engagement with the values of social justice. She has worked for this herself in her hometown of Chicago, thinking globally and acting locally as always.
As Orthodox communities around the country slowly wake up to the realities of child sexual abuse, it's not their spiritual and communal leaders who are leading the charge to protect the most vulnerable. Instead, a small but determined group of sexual abuse survivors have dragged the issue from the shadows into the light, often at great personal cost.
Joel Engelman, 24, is one such survivor, a reliably levelheaded and soft-spoken presence at conferences, protests, and rallies, where emotions inevitably run high.
A founding member of the advocacy group Survivors for Justice, Engelman went public with his story after suing his former yeshiva, the Satmar-run United Talmudical Academy in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and former principal Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, who continues to teach despite facing several abuse allegations. Engelman is one of many survivors who have made a difference by speaking out publicly. They're battling not only the stigma of sexual abuse, but also an entrenched power system that all too often spends more time worrying about the reputations of accused molesters than about their responsibility to protect children.
It has since been called the most serious incident of judicial corruption in the nation's history. But when Marsha Levick, 58, and her colleagues from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia first began probing the harsh sentences imposed on young people after lightning-fast hearings in the courtrooms of Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, they had no idea what they would uncover.
They knew only that children were being sent away, sometimes in shackles, for first-time crimes as minor as pushing a classmate into a school locker. Levick and other JLC lawyers eventually built a comprehensive case, alleging that for years, Judges Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael T. Conahan were sending the youngsters, who often had no legal representation, to private jails whose owner had paid the pair a total of $2.6 million in bribes.
The JLC - founded in 1975 by Levick, executive director Robert Schwartz, and two other Temple Law School classmates - pursued justice for the juveniles involved, fighting against the vast political bureaucracy of Pennsylvania's legal system, and finally won. Ciavarella and Conahan are awaiting trial on a 48-count racketeering indictment. Meanwhile, on October 30, the state?s Supreme Court dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions, saying that none of the young offenders had received a fair hearing. "This is exactly the relief these kids needed," Levick said afterward. And the relief they deserved.
Ruth Messinger, 69, the indefatigable president of the American Jewish World Service, distinguished herself this year as one of the leading Jewish voices on the national stage fighting against poverty and for human rights.
She simply never gives up. In March, when the Obama administration called upon advocates to advise the new special envoy to Sudan, Messinger - an early and consistent foe of the genocide in Darfur - was among them. In July, when the administration appointed a Task Force on Global Poverty and Development, Messinger was on the panel. But Messinger's work goes well beyond the halls of power. She is often found in the slums of India or with HIV/AIDS patients in Peru. And she's willing to speak truth to power, as she did in the commencement address this year to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"This is a time when we need to determine what we stand for, who we really are," she said. "We must be able to help people of all ages answer the question: 'Why be Jewish?' To resonate, the answer must be more than tribal identity. You must encourage people to acknowledge that our world is broken and that being Jewish in the world today means working to fix it."
Despite, or perhaps because of, spending months in meditation, Forward columnist Jay Michaelson (The Polymath) has had a breakout year on three fronts. His book "Everything is God" is the first serious theological attempt to codify what is ? or could be ? Jewish about the broader Jewish spiritual movement often referred to as JuBu. An article that Michaelson, 38, wrote articulating his personal struggle between love and disaffection for Israel, "How I?m Losing My Love for Israel," touched a deep nerve in both the American Jewish and Anglo-Israeli psyches. And Nehirim, the Jewish spiritual GLBT movement he founded in 2004, has become one of the most important venues for gay Jews to find both community and representation on East and West coasts.
Irving Moskowitz has been called "the patron saint of the East Jerusalem settler movement" for buying up and developing properties for Jewish settlement there. In July, when Moskowitz, a Florida-based physician-turned-casino tycoon, got the go-ahead to build an apartment complex in a Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem, he helped expose fault lines between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. His plan to develop the site drew objections from the U.S. State Department, which called on Israel to halt construction. For now, the project is moving forward, with Israel insisting that Jewish development anywhere in Jerusalem not be curtailed. Moskowitz, 81, is a powerful and polarizing figure, not just in the world of Jerusalem real estate, but also on the philanthropy scene: He and his wife are at the helm of a charitable foundation that funds Jewish education, right-leaning Israel advocacy groups and disaster relief. They also award the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism. In 2009, all three of the winners were settler leaders.
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