Until 2018, the men and women on this list may have been known in their communities or professional circles, although some were still complete unknowns. They were chosen because this was their breakout year, the one in which they inspired those around them and became known to the wider world – either through their victories and accomplishments or, conversely, the way they handled challenges and even tragedies. Some, meanwhile, just introduced the world to a crazy song...
1. Jacky Rosen
In the casino lingo of her state of Nevada, 61-year-old Jacky Rosen hit the political jackpot. Three short years have taken her from synagogue president to freshman congresswoman to senator. Her hard-fought win in the 2018 midterms was the Democrats’ sole success in flipping a GOP Senate seat. Impressive, particularly in view of the fact that her opponent was strongly backed by the wealthiest and most powerful Republican donor in the state (and country) – Sheldon Adelson.
The former computer programmer and software consultant will serve on five Senate committees – including homeland security, and health, education and labor – when she starts her new job next month. Not bad for someone derided as “Wacky” Jacky by the leader of the Free World.
2. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers
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The world of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was turned upside down on October 27 when gunfire rang out in his Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue as he was leading morning services. He was a hero – and not only because he helped some worshippers escape the synagogue and told others trapped in the back of the sanctuary to drop to the floor. In the days after the tragedy (which he still only refers to as “October 27th”), he put his own pain aside, officiating at the funerals of the 11 deceased congregants, escorting President Donald Trump as he paid his respects on a controversial visit to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and acting as a voice of calm and reason, imploring political leaders to tone down their rhetoric.
Marking the end of the shloshim (first 30 days of mourning), Myers, 62, wrote: “The outpouring of compassion and love, not just from fellow Jews, but people of all faiths throughout the world, has been a soothing balm. It has reassured not just our synagogue, but the entire Jewish community, that we are not alone at this time, that all good people stand with us.”
3. Bari Weiss
Less than a year after leaving the Wall Street Journal for the New York Times opinions section, 34-year-old Bari Weiss joined her mentor, Bret Stephens, as one of the Gray Lady’s highest-profile and most controversial opinion-makers. Carving out a lane that sets off the paper’s liberal readers and conservative foes alike, Weiss – who jokes that she is “sort of intellectually promiscuous” – has penned takes on the #MeToo movement and Israel that have gone viral, making her a prime target for abuse on Twitter. She has also become a favorite guest on HBO’s weekly political show “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
In November, after the anti-Semitic shooting attack on the Tree of Life synagogue where she herself became a bat mitzvah while growing up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Weiss won much praise after penning a deeply personal piece describing the devastation “when a terrorist comes to your hometown.”
4. Einat Kalisch Rotem and Aliza Bloch
There may not have been a Knesset election in Israel this year, but municipal races put several female faces on the national radar. Dr. Einat Kalisch Rotem, 48, defeated Haifa’s longtime mayor in a landslide win, making her the first elected woman to head one of Israel’s three major cities. The left-wing Kalisch Rotem, who has a doctorate in architecture and urban planning, was aided by the northern city’s ultra-Orthodox community, who backed her against incumbent Yona Yahav.
In a much tighter race in the small but high-profile city of Beit Shemesh, the 51-year-old religious-Zionist candidate Aliza Bloch surprised everyone by ending the reign of controversial ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbul. And this in a city that many Israelis had written off as hurtling toward religious extremism. In her victory speech, the former school principal declared: “From today, Beit Shemesh will be a model for the nation.”
5. Rabbi Dov Haiyun
The year 2018 was a roller-coaster one for Rabbi Dov Haiyun, spiritual leader of one of Israel’s oldest Conservative congregations. His lowest point came in July when he was detained by the police after a complaint was filed against him by Haifa’s rabbinical court. It was an attempt to enforce a law prohibiting Jewish weddings be performed outside of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel – a crime that carries a potential two-year jail sentence.
But Haiyun, 56, made lemonade out of lemons: after a public outcry derailed his detention (and after the intervention of Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit), he rode the wave of public sympathy to become the first non-Orthodox rabbi ever to serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city – in this case Haifa, serving under Kalisch Rotem. He also experienced an uptick in demand for his services at weddings, perhaps proving his mantra that “when you sow love, you reap love.”
6. Newbie Jewish congressmen and women
Eight Jewish newcomers – four men and four women – will take their seats in the House of Representatives in January, after midterm victories in the “blue wave” gave the Democratic Party control of the lower house. Three attention-getting Jewish military veterans scored unexpected upsets: Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Max Rose of New York (who overturned a large GOP majority on Staten Island) and Elaine Luria of Virginia, who once held a Passover seder on an aircraft carrier. They are joined by the two Levins – California’s Mike and Michigan’s Andy; Minnesota’s Dean Phillips; Susan Wild of Pennsylvania; and Kim Schrier from Washington.
And last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the 29-year-old incoming Democratic congresswoman from New York who has been critical of Israeli policy in Gaza – said that members of her family were descendants of Jews forced to convert and flee Spain during the Inquisition in the 15th century.
7. Netta Barzilai
Never, it seems, has an Israeli been transformed quite so quickly from a nobody to the name on everyone’s lips – including the country’s prime minister (much to the confusion of Bing’s auto-translating machine) – than Netta Barzilai. The 25-year-old singer from Hod Hasharon accomplished what nobody thought possible by being crowned winner of the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest in May with her over-the-top clucking and strutting performance of the #MeToo anthem “Toy.”
Barzilai, who earned the right to represent Israel by winning a reality show competition, will be the star of the show when Eurovision comes to Israel for the first time in 20 years next May. However, writers of “Toy” fared slightly less well after Universal Music threatened to sue them over their song’s similarities to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Luckily, they reportedly reached a deal that meant Israel wouldn’t be stripped of its Euro crown due to plagiarism.
8. Ady Barkan
Among the many political progressive activists emerging during the Trump presidency, Israeli-American Ady Barkan has stood out. His fight against legislation that chips away at Obamacare and his battle for Democratic victories in the midterms hasn’t just been political – it’s been personal. Barkan, 35, is dying of ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and is devoting his final years to the battle for health care. His body growing weaker, he raised money and campaigned for candidates in 22 states during the 2018 election campaign, addressing crowds from his wheelchair and declaring that he is “willing to give my last breath to save our democracy.” As he told his followers on Twitter several times. “I may be dying, but I’m definitely not going quietly.”
9. Adele Raemer
It’s not every day that an English teacher from the Bronx living on a kibbutz in southern Israel gets invited to testify before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. But that is what happened to Adele Raemer, who was asked to address the UNHRC’s Independent Commission of Inquiry in November about events on the Gaza border this year.
Raemer, 64, was chosen because her Facebook group, Life on the Border with Gaza – Things People May Not Know (But Should), has drawn a worldwide following, making her the face and voice of Gaza-area residents in the English-speaking world. Like her social media presence, Raemer’s UN testimony described how missile attacks and incendiary kites and balloons affect real lives, emphasizing the “little details of people’s lives that do not get reported in the press.”
10. Ben Yaffet
Normally, it takes a major sports team or famous musician to fill an arena with thousands of enthusiastic people. But the Israeli phenomenon known as Koolulam, with its cool, dreadlocked front man Ben Yaffet, has been drawing huge crowds not as spectators but to participate in mass performances of popular songs.
Yaffet flits across the stage, conducting what he calls a “social choir.” Videos of the happenings have gone viral worldwide, Koolulam’s visibility peaking when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was among 12,000 at an event marking Israel’s 70th anniversary this spring. In October, Koolulam traveled to South Africa, where 3,500 people came along to sing along – its first international foray, but surely not its last.