Lessons in Leadership
One of the benefits of the never-ending presidential campaign that Americans were treated to this year was a lesson in leadership. On stage before us were aspiring leaders of different races, genders, backgrounds, temperaments, debating skills and political persuasions. That the final winner was a man with an uncommon intellect and breathtaking rhetorical skills, unnerving calm and a bracing vision for the future says a lot about this nation. That Jewish voters supported Barack Obama's historic election in overwhelming numbers says a lot about this community at this time.
Searching for that breadth of leadership within the community is a more challenging task. Rather than parading before us, some of the American Jews highlighted in this year's Forward 50 earned their distinction quietly. Although theirs were not the loudest voices, nor the usual ones, by words and deeds they shaped American life as Jews, largely for the better, sadly sometimes for the worse.
The task of selecting these 50 names was aided by you, our readers. Every year there's a certain degree of input — shall we say lobbying? — on behalf of some candidates, which the journalists who choose these names take into account appropriately. But this year, for the first time, the Forward directly asked readers to submit nominations and, much to our delight, the process surfaced a number of strong candidates we might otherwise have overlooked. Thank you to all who participated. You can be sure we will ask you again next year.
Two narratives dominated the Jewish story this year, and, naturally, are reflected in the Forward 50. Jews played an outsized role in the presidential election campaign and, by the looks of it, will continue to do so in the new Obama administration. Some of the most intriguing developments came from unexpected places: a young lobbying group that shook up the Washington establishment; a brash video that was viewed by more than 1 million on YouTube alone and introduced new words into the mainstream political lexicon.
This was also the year the kosher meat industry faced its greatest legal, consumer and ethical challenges. Led by the courageous reporting of our Nathaniel Popper, the saga of the now-bankrupt company that once was the country's largest producer of kosher beef and poultry exposed major lapses in the U.S. justice and immigration systems, and prompted rabbis of all denominations to examine the moral dimension of a central Jewish tenet.
The importance of this story is underscored by the inclusion — a rare one — of a non-Jew as the 51st name on this list. Father Paul Ouderkirk, the priest of the Catholic church in Postville, Iowa, displayed unusual leadership and compassion by helping displaced workers and their families to survive. Indeed, at times it has seemed as if Father Ouderkirk and the good members of St. Bridget's were among the few in this sad story willing to do the right thing.
The Forward 50 celebrates leadership, creativity, impact. It also reminds us how far we still have to go to truly repair the world.
What do you think about our choices? Weigh in here.
Morris AllenMorris Allen
Rabbi Morris Allen was ready for his moment in the spotlight this year: leading a Jewish food revolution. Since 2006, Allen, who leads a Conservative congregation in suburban Minneapolis, has been the most vocal critic of Agriprocessors, the country's largest producer of kosher meat. After heading a committee that investigated and criticized working conditions at the plant, Allen, 53, helped devise a new system, known as Hekhsher Tzedek, or Justice Certification, to evaluate the conditions under which kosher food is produced. The Hekhsher Tzedek spoke to thousands of years of Jewish tradition about business ethics and played into a larger burgeoning American fascination with where our food comes from. It all came to seem like foresight when Agriprocessors' Iowa plant was the target of an immigration raid in May. The Hekhsher Tzedek became a national phenomenon and a rare galvanizing point for the struggling Conservative movement. While the Justice Certification at first generated intense opposition among large segments of the Orthodox community, now even some Orthodox rabbis are acquiescing to the logic of bringing some oft-forgotten Jewish ethics back into practice.
Jeremy Ben-AmiJeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami gave the Jewish dialogue in Washington a very different feel this year thanks to his new organization. J Street, where Ben-Ami is executive director, is envisioned as a progressive pro-Israel advocacy lobby that will offer a counterweight to Aipac, which liberals like Ben-Ami perceive as too hawkish and unrepresentative of views held by most American Jews. Before Ben-Ami got J Street up and running, there were many doubters, but over the last year it has become a fund raising powerhouse. Ben-Ami has not just used that influence on the Middle East, he created a political action committee, JStreetPAC, to lend a liberal Jewish voice to domestic politics. Among the 41 candidates the PAC supported, 32 won their races. More significant was the presidential race, in which Barack Obama was buffeted by rumors about his faith and commitment to Israel. The 78% of Jewish voters that Obama won over offer support for Ben-Ami's vision of a liberal, open American Jewry. Ben-Ami, whose grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv, served as President Bill Clinton's deputy domestic policy adviser and served on Howard Dean's presidential campaign. But with a Democratic majority in Washington, Ben-Ami's biggest acts are likely yet to come.
Rahm EmanuelRahm Emanuel
When the new president takes office in January, the man at his side will be the son of an Israeli, Rahm Emanuel, or "Rahmbo" as he is known in Washington for his take-no-prisoners style. The Illinois congressman who will be Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, is described as one of the most talented political hands in Washington. After earlier stints as an adviser in Bill Clinton's White House and as chair of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives, Emanuel, 48, is expected to help the new president achieve ambitious goals. Emanuel, who grew up going to Jewish day school and visiting Israel every summer, volunteered at an Israeli military base during the 1991 Gulf War. Emanuel's father, Benjamin, was a member of the right-wing underground during the British mandate, but Rahm is known as a centrist who supports the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Insiders credit Emanuel with orchestrating the 1993 historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat by advising Clinton to grab the two leaders by the arms and make the moment happen. With Emanuel's clout, who knows what similar moments are in store during the Obama presidency.
Penny PritzkerPenny Pritzker
As a member of one of Chicago's wealthiest families, Penny Pritzker comes from a line known for its business acumen. But perhaps nobody in the family has pulled off a financial feat that tops the vaunted fund-raising machine she helped build for Barack Obama as his national finance chair. Though Obama's troubles in winning over Jewish voters were a key story line in his presidential race, Jewish support helped him make the national scene. Pritzker is one of a cadre of prominent Chicago Jews — including the Crown family, Abner Mikva and Lee Rosenberg — who knew Obama as a state senator and helped form a key support for his 2004 Senate run. When Obama decided to make his long-shot presidential bid, he tapped Pritzker to help him raise the cash he needed. Pritzker, in turn, helped forge the most successful fund-raising campaign in American political history, merging a flood of small Internet donations with traditional Democratic big money. With the campaign over, Pritzker, 49, may return to helping run her family's Hyatt hotel chain. Or maybe not. Her name is being floated in Washington circles as a potential secretary of commerce.
Sarah SilvermanSarah Silverman
It would have been reasonable to assume that comedian Sarah Silverman had pushed the boundaries of Jewish humor as far as they could possibly go with a one-liner she delivered in her "Jesus is Magic" tour a couple of years back. "I was raped by a doctor," she says, her trademark shayna punim all wide-eyed innocence, "which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." This year, Silverman, 37, went further: Not only did she create a pro-Barack Obama monologue that gleefully skewered the polite discourse around the purported racism of some elderly Jewish voters, her video got into so many e-mail inboxes that comic Jackie Mason, a John McCain supporter, responded with an indignant monologue of his own. Silverman's election monologue may have been more popular than it was successful. The video was a promotion for "The Great Schlep," a Jewish organization's effort to get young Jews to fly to Florida and sweet-talk their grandparents into voting for Obama. Reportedly, only about 100 grandkids showed up. But Silverman is having a pretty good year: Her sitcom, "The Sarah Silverman Program," is in its second season on Comedy Central, and she won an Emmy for her anniversary present to her on-again, off-again boyfriend, comedian Jimmy Kimmel, a video in which she has a torrid affair with Matt Damon, starring herself and, well, Matt Damon. Bittersweet stuff.
Filling the shoes of the late Tom Lantos is not an easy task. Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, ran the House Foreign Affairs Committee with a passion for global human rights and a lively temper. When Rep.Howard Berman, a fellow California Democrat, took over as chair this year after Lantos's passing, he changed the style and tone dramatically, but committee members treated him with the same level of respect they had shown Lantos. Berman, 67, has won praise from both sides of the aisle for his deep knowledge of issues and his fairness, which stands out in the Capitol Hill scene. It was his Jewish faith that brought Berman to take an interest in foreign policy. "I was a Zionist before being a Democrat," he told the Forward in an interview earlier this year, adding that concern over the fate of Israel led him to focus on international affairs in Congress. In his congressional work, Berman is known to be a strong supporter of Israel, though he is also known for nuance. He used his chairmanship to block a resolution calling for tough measures against Iran. Anti-war groups had argued the resolution was a step toward military action.
Few can claim a bigger hand in shaping the Jewish debate in this year's presidential contest than Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition since 1990. In that role, he and the RJC served as the de facto Jewish outreach arm of both the Republican National Committee and John McCain's presidential campaign. Brooks, 43, was a driving force behind the blitz of advertisements that filled Jewish newspapers and Web sites (including the Forward's) raising questions about Barack Obama's judgment and commitment to Israel. The ads didn't just spur debate, they poured fuel on a fire to cast doubt on Obama's fitness for the Oval Office. The messages were no doubt controversial, but there was no denying they were effective in causing many Jews with long histories of voting Democratic to at least reconsider that allegiance. Brooks began his political career as state chairman of the Massachusetts College Republicans while still an undergraduate at Brandeis University. In 1988 he managed Jack Kemp's presidential campaign in Massachusetts and later was the national field director for President George H.W. Bush's Jewish outreach effort. Brooks, an avid poker player, went to Las Vegas to unwind after this year's election. "I'm such a pariah this year," he said.
Although he may have lost the title of John McCain's lead Jewish voice to Joe Lieberman, Rep. Eric Cantor emerged from the 2008 elections as the No. 1 Jewish Republican. At 45, the Virginia conservative is viewed as a rising star among House Republicans. He made it to McCain's vice-presidential short list. In Republican circles, Cantor is frequently mentioned as a possible 2012 presidential contender. The four-term congressman, who represents the Richmond area, serves as the Republican chief deputy whip, a job that put him in the spotlight during September's fierce debate over the Wall Street bailout plan. Cantor stood up against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of playing partisan politics, and later played an instrumental role in convincing fellow Republicans to reconsider the deal. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House. While his Democratic colleagues enjoy monthly bagel meetings sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, Cantor set up his own forum of Jewish Republicans, who meet periodically and invite guest speakers.
It was an extraordinary year for Rep. Steve Cohen, the freshman congressman from Tennessee. While his colleagues in the class of 2006 were trying to make their voices heard, Cohen was taking on the toughest issues for a politician: race and religion. Representing Tennessee's Ninth District, which is 60% African American, Cohen was well aware of the race issue early in his political career. In 1996, he lost a primary election to Harold Ford Jr. and said it was "impossible" for a white candidate to win in a black community. Ten years later he proved himself wrong, winning the House seat by a significant margin. When he arrived in Washington, Cohen was successful in passing a resolution apologizing for slavery, the first statement of its kind. But this was not enough for some. In the 2008 primary race, his rival Nikki Tinker, who is African American, ran ads juxtaposing images of Cohen with Klansmen and criticizing him for visiting "our churches" while opposing prayer in schools. He won the primary by a 4-to-1 margin. Cohen, 59, is a fourth-generation Tennessean with a distinct Southern accent and a lively sense of humor. Although he comes from a largely conservative state, he has liberal views on most social issues. He was also among the first politicians to be endorsed by the dovish JStreetPAC.
This year's financial meltdown catapulted Democrat Barney Frank, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, to center stage. During tense days in late September, as the American credit markets ground to a halt, Frank played a major role in shaping the Wall Street bailout plan and getting it approved. The outspoken, and at times short-tempered, congressman from Massachusetts shuttled between meetings with the Treasury secretary, House Republicans and his own party members in an effort to deliver the deal. After the vote, Frank stood proudly with congressional leaders in front of TV cameras to announce victory. In his 27-year career in Congress, Frank, 68, has made history before. He was the first leading politician to come out as gay in 1987, and has since carried the flag for civil liberties and gay rights in Congress. Growing up in a New Jersey family with a strong Jewish identity, Frank frequently draws upon the idea of tikkun olam as a driving force behind his work on civil rights and assisting the needy.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The first Jewish woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court has occupied that seat now for 15 years. But, as longtime court watcher Linda Greenhouse noted, this year was the first time that Ruth Bader Ginsburg "found her voice, and used it." Twice during the court's 2008 spring session, Ginsburg offered forceful oral dissents from the bench, a rare move for any justice and one that Ginsburg — a quiet, polite, white-glove kind of woman — had never before taken. But the cases involved abortion and workplace discrimination, two issues that have long been at the forefront of Ginsburg's remarkable legal career. Observers say that Ginsburg, 75, has dropped some of her notable collegiality and become more vocal and passionate this year because of the growing conservatism of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts. As the only woman left among the nine justices, she is thought to be particularly concerned about upholding the liberal values that have been the cornerstone of a career that has taken her from Brooklyn to Harvard to the highest court in the land.
Only eight years have passed since Senator Joseph Lieberman was the Democratic nominee for vice president, an acclaimed moral voice and a historic figure as the first Jew to appear on a major-party ticket. Today he stands at the edge of the wilderness, a four-term lawmaker at home in neither party. Democrats are furious over Lieberman's sharp-tongued campaigning this year for John McCain. But the bad blood goes back further. The only Orthodox Jew on Capitol Hill, Lieberman was an enthusiastic booster of President Bush's Iraq War policy in 2003. Angry Democrats replied by virtually ignoring his primary bid for president in 2004 and sinking his Senate re-election bid in Connecticut's 2006 primary. He ran for Senate anyway as an independent and won. Returning to the Capitol, he sat with wary Democrats, providing their 51st vote to control the chamber. They rewarded him with the influential Homeland Security committee chairmanship. That was then. Today Lieberman, 66, is a conundrum. Liberals despise his hawkish defense views, but don't relish losing his vote — nor alienating Orthodox Jews. Republicans mistrust his liberal record on domestic affairs. He is threatened with loss of his powerful committee chairmanship. Few admit it, but he's become the embodiment of the centrist's lonely plight in a polarized Washington.
One of the big stories of the presidential election was Barack Obama's Jewish problem, real or perceived: E-mails said Obama was a Muslim and wanted to destroy Israel. Some Jewish retirees declared that they wouldn't vote for a black man. Among Jewish voters, polls showed Obama at only 60%, which would have translated into the worst election result for any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1980. Yet in the end, Obama pulled in an estimated 78% of the Jewish vote, a solid showing by any historical measure. And a healthy portion of the credit goes to Jewish activists like Mik Moore, 34, a community professional who organized grass-roots outreach to soothe Jewish fears and boost Jewish enthusiasm for Obama. Moore, the son of noted historian Deborah Dash Moore, co-founded the Jewish Council for Education and Research, one of a host of grass-roots groups that included rabbis, Israelis and Jewish studies scholars who backed Obama. JCER achieved its greatest prominence with The Great Schlep, an effort to convince Jewish youngsters to travel to Florida (or least at least call) to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama. The idea was a reprise of Moore's Operation Bubbe from four years ago, but this time a heartfelt and foul-mouthed video promotion by comedian Sarah Silverman spread like wildfire and gave the movement traction.
Until this year, Dennis Ross was the ultimate diplomat. Ross, the longtime lead negotiator in the Middle East for the first President Bush and for President Bill Clinton, spent more than a decade trying to hammer out deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors. After leaving government in 2000, he reflected upon the failure of the peace process and offered advice on the topic from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He also moonlighted as a Fox News foreign policy commentator and as chairman of the board of a think tank set up by the Jewish Agency to focus on the future of the Jewish people. This year, the 59-year-old Ross ventured into the brave new world of politics, advising Barack Obama on the Mideast and campaigning for him in Jewish strongholds such as Florida to bolster Obama's pro-Israel credentials. Ross has lamented the Bush administration's belated and lackluster peacemaking efforts in the region and is hopeful that an Obama administration will rededicate Washington to a genuine peace agenda while dealing more efficiently with Iran's nuclear ambitions. He will undoubtedly provide wisdom to the president-elect's policymakers to help them achieve a comprehensive peace agreement, a goal that has eluded the presidents he served and those he observed.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz
It's sometimes hard to believe that it's been only four years since Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz became the first Jewish woman from Florida to be elected to Congress. That's because she's wasted little time moving up the ranks on Capitol Hill. She not only won a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee, but also joined the "college of cardinals" as one of its powerful subcommittee chairs — overseeing Congress's own budget. Smart, quick, ambitious and tenacious are some of the adjectives used to describe this 42-year-old mother of three, who represents parts of Dade and Broward counties in a district that has the third-largest concentration of Jews in America. Her House Democratic colleagues tapped her to help chair their "Red to Blue" program, which directs funding and support to races where Republicans may be vulnerable. Wasserman Schultz, a staunch supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential primaries, later enthusiastically backed Barack Obama's general election campaign. Her support was welcomed by Obama's campaign, which was quick to utilize Wasserman Schultz to reach out to Jewish and female voters.
At a time when many Democrats in Congress backed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. Robert Wexler took a risk. As co-chair of Barack Obama's Florida campaign, Wexler often reminded audiences that he was one of the first Jews to support Obama for president long before it was fashionable, and long before many of his older Jewish constituents in the Sunshine State warmed up to Obama. Such loyalty earned Wexler, 47, a prime spot speaking about Israel and the Middle East during the Democratic convention. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee since his election in 1997, Wexler will likely continue to have Obama's ear and be a sounding board on Jewish and Middle East matters in Congress. Known for a prosecutorial style, this lawyer will probably have his hand in a number of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues. Within the Foreign Affairs Committee, he is chairman of the Europe subcommittee and a member of the Middle East subcommittee. He also serves on the House Financial Services and Judiciary committees. Wexler voted to give the Bush administration authority to invade Iraq, but he has been a frequent administration critic and called for hearings on whether to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney.
Organizers of New York’s annual Salute to Israel parade had a problem this year. It was Israel’s 60th birthday, and they were concerned that, as in years past, not many Israelis would show up. So they called David Borowich. Borowich is the founder and honorary chairman of Dor Chadash, a four-year-old organization that brings together Israelis living in New York and their American Jewish peers. The group’s events range from huge nightclub parties with an Israeli dance music soundtrack to concerts and films featuring Israel’s biggest artists and filmmakers, to an open-mic discussion with Elie Wiesel. Young Jews, both American and Israeli, show up in droves. For Israel’s 60th, Dor Chadash organized a celebration at Radio City Music Hall that was billed as the largest Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration outside of Israel. Borowich, 38, has a biography that suits the bridge-building nature of his job: After growing up in Kentucky and New York, but before becoming a Wall Street executive, he made aliyah and served in the Israeli army. Today, he spends his spare time serving on the boards of Jewish and philanthropic organizations.
Eyebrows were raised in the Jewish community when William Daroff was appointed three years ago to head the Washington operation of United Jewish Communities. Daroff came to the job after a long career in the Republican establishment and had served as deputy executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. His background did not seem in line with the purpose of UJC’s Washington office: advancing funding for social services. But Daroff, 41, quickly turned his assumed disadvantage into a benefit. Upon stepping into his new post, Daroff shed his partisan colors and worked with both parties to advance social legislation and funding. UJC is an umbrella organization of Jewish federations, which administer more than $7 billion in government funds that provide services for Jewish elderly, sick and needy. Through its Washington office, the group is a significant stakeholder in government decisions dealing with Medicare, Medicaid, housing and aid to families. Daroff has been successful in pushing forward these issues. Yet his work exceeded the realm of Jewish interests. He became a significant player in advancing the revised Americans with Disabilities Act and lobbying for a bill providing equal care for the mentally ill. His positions have at times put Daroff at odds with the Bush White House, but his earlier affiliation did not stop him from criticizing the Republican administration.
Esther Safran Foer
If the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer are refreshingly free of cartoonish matriarchs, perhaps some credit is due to the author’s very un-cartoonish mother. Esther Safran Foer may not be as famous as the best-known of her three writer sons, but she has been a macher in Washington, D.C., since before he was born. The founder and president of a public relations firm called FM Strategic Communications — and the onetime press secretary to 1972 Democratic presidential hopeful George McGovern — Foer, 62, now works full time in the Jewish community as the executive director of 6th & I, a D.C. cultural hub winning rave reviews for its eclectic programming and ability to draw a crowd. Sixth and I is housed in a 100-year-old synagogue building at the corner of the two streets that give it its name. In the last few months alone, 6th & I, under Foer’s direction, has hosted programs that range from talks by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and author Salman Rushdie to performances by indie rock star Jenny Lewis and reggae sensation Matisyahu. And it does hold religious services. When it opened its High Holy Days services free to the public this year, the waiting list for tickets nearly reached the four-digit mark.
Emerging from a nasty dispute over his opposition to a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, turned to his bread-and-butter issue: antisemitism. For more than 20 years as head of the ADL, Foxman has thrown his weight around to denounce bigotry in Europe, in Muslim countries and in the United States. He has warned that the current financial meltdown has revived old canards about Jewish money and power. This year, Foxman took aim at what he sees as a more subtle form of antisemitism: the argument laid out by two mainstream scholars, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who claimed that the "Israel lobby" is skewing American foreign policy in favor of Israel and to the detriment of the national interests of the United States. In response, Foxman penned a book, "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control," blitzed the media and hit the circuit to rebuke what he perceives as a dangerous rehashing of dual-loyalty suspicions regarding American Jews. While some critics bemoan his excessive zeal, Foxman remains, at 68, a fixture of the Jewish communal world here and abroad, one whose voice will continue to be heard.
On the morning after she lost her final primary race to Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference, where she shook hands behind the scenes with the victorious Illinois senator. John McCain was there, too. Once again this year, Aipac has demonstrated its central role in America’s political scene, and Howard Kohr, the group’s executive director for the last 12 years, was there to make sure that doesn’t change. At 52, Kohr is known as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He is well connected with leaders and policymakers of both parties. The crowd at the Aipac policy conference might have seemed enthusiastic for McCain, but Kohr and the lobby’s leadership cultivated close relations with Obama and his top advisers, ensuring Aipac would remain a key player even as administrations change. Kohr has succeeded in keeping Aipac above the fray of the internal disputes of the Jewish community. For the first time, this year Aipac faced a competitor in J Street, a true challenger in the field of pro-Israel lobbying. Yet Aipac did not seem to take a hit. Aipac continued to flourish, increasing its funds and membership, moving to a new headquarters in Washington and maintaining its political clout.
Since the advent of the modern political convention, no rabbi had given the invocation on the night of the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech. That is, until this year, when Rabbi David Saperstein, 61, stood in front of a massive outdoor audience in Denver and offered a blessing before Barack Obama’s historic nomination. As director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than 30 years, Saperstein is no stranger to politics. His official biography boasts that he has been called the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill." But in a town filled with advocates for particular causes, the soft-spoken Saperstein has distinguished himself by gaining wide respect from members of all faiths, thanks to years of activity in building advocacy coalitions on social issues and foreign policy. He has been a leading force in the Save Darfur Coalition and currently co-chairs the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty, comprising more than 50 national religious denominations and educational organizations. An attorney, writer and speaker, Saperstein has positioned the Reform movement, the nation’s largest Jewish denomination, in the forefront of progressive politics. "We pray for America, that it may ever be an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations," he intoned on that starry night in Denver, "a beacon of freedom, human rights and economic opportunity."
When Daniel Sokatch — head of the California-based Progressive Jewish Alliance and a poster boy for Jewish social justice activism — was tapped this spring to be CEO of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation, many in the Jewish communal world were surprised. Could a charismatic liberal known for galvanizing young activists translate his brand of leadership to a consensus-oriented federation? While he has been on the job for only a few months, expectations run high. Sokatch, 40, made a name for himself as PJA’s first executive director. In eight years at its helm, he helped shape the fledgling group into an innovative and influential Jewish presence on Los Angeles’s multi-ethnic activist scene. Today, PJA boasts some 4,000 members, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. If Sokatch can do for San Francisco’s federation — which has floundered in recent years — what he did for PJA, he could end up providing a new model for North America’s ailing federation system.
Although almost everyone who’s anyone on Capitol Hill and in Jewish federations knows Hadar Susskind, few understand his job title: Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. He is the person in charge of translating Washington politics for Jewish communal leaders and bringing their concerns and priorities to the ears of politicians. For the past two years, Susskind, 35, has been part of a drive to take Jewish advocacy to the field of social justice. His work made the Jewish community a player in this year’s effort to pass the new farm bill in Congress. Jewish farmers are scarce, but Susskind focused on a little-known part of the bill dealing with food stamps, and became a driving force in bringing about passage of the bill and increases in assistance for thousands of families in need. A former infantry soldier in an Israeli combat unit and a former kibbutznik, Susskind views himself as both American and Israeli. His work has taken Jewish lobbying away from its foreign policy focus and has made the Jewish community a partner in the political debate on poverty, hunger and social assistance.
The author of six cookbooks in five years, Susie Fishbein has achieved an international following and a deeply devoted fan base. Her wildly popular Kosher by Design series, published by ArtScroll, has sold more than 300,000 copies. The latest in the collection, "Kosher by Design Lightens Up," had about 25,000 pre-orders three weeks before it went on sale November 17. And it’s no wonder. At first glance the books might seem too sleek and trendy for real-kitchen use, but Fishbein, 40, has fine-tuned the art of producing stylish, well-organized tomes that are approachable and, on page after page, practical. Most of the ingredients are simple and can be found in supermarkets. Perhaps most important, the Oceanside, N.Y., native has achieved a delicate culinary balance that is often lacking in the world of modern cookbooks and strictly kosher cuisine. The recipes, which are reviewed by an Orthodox rabbi, don’t exactly resemble the traditional fare that bubbe used to make (no leaden matzo balls or bland chicken here), but they’re not overly exotic or intimidating, either. Rack of lamb with fig-marsala sauce, sweet-and-sour brisket, zucchini-leek soup with ginger cream and, of course, Fishbein’s tri-colored matzo balls are among the hundreds of dishes that have earned the kosher diva her nickname.
As the kosher meat industry nearly fell apart over the last year, it was Rabbi Menachem Genack who was trusted to hold things together. As the CEO of the country’s largest kosher supervisor, O.U. Kosher, Genack, 60, was sought out by people inside and outside the industry after America’s largest kosher meat producer, Agriprocessors, was hit with an immigration raid, criminal charges and eventually bankruptcy. The sequence of events had the potential to cripple the supply of meat to observant Jews across the country, but Genack avoided showing any signs of panic. At the beginning, his slow and steady leadership disappointed many liberal voices in the Jewish community, who wanted him to take more forceful action against Agriprocessors. Later on, when the weight of evidence piled up against the company, Genack was willing to disappoint many in the Orthodox community by demanding that Agriprocessors change its leadership. This approach has not been enough to stop the implosion of Agriprocessors — and the human and animal suffering that came along with it — but Genack has supplied a modicum of sanity to an industry in crisis.
It is safe to say that Aaron Rubashkin did not want to become famous this year. Rubashkin was happy to labor behind the scenes for the last few decades, turning his family business, Agriprocessors, into the largest producer of kosher meat in the country. His children have run the operations on the ground, but the octogenarian Rubashkin has been back in Brooklyn making the big decisions. Those decisions helped the company grow, but they also led it down the path to trouble. Agriprocessors’ hiring and pay policies resulted in a federal immigration raid on its plant in Postville, Iowa, earlier this year. Since then, Rubashkin and his family have faced a number of criminal charges that eventually led the company to declare bankruptcy. The company’s problems have sparked a protest movement and, in turn, changed the way people think about kosher food. None of this would have happened without Rubashkin. While the final judgment about him will be rendered in the courts, his trial in the media has already changed minds.
Remember the summer blackout of 2003 in the Northeast? Lots of people used it as an excuse not to leave home, but about 100 hardy souls schlepped their bicycles to Long Island to kick off a four-day bike ride at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, thanks to Nigel Savage. Savage, who hails from Manchester, England, is the environmentalist impresario behind Hazon, a Jewish outdoor education group formed in 2000. Not only does Hazon hold annual bike rides to raise money for Jewish environmental projects, it runs community-supported agriculture programs (support for small farmers = fresh produce for urban Jews!) throughout the United States, Canada and Israel. Recent entries on the organization’s food-politics blog, "The Jew and the Carrot," run the gamut from a warning about pesticide-covered etrogim to a recipe for warm barley salad to an advice column by "The Shmethicist." Hazon threw itself into the debate over ethical kashrut last December when it publicly slaughtered a goat at its annual food conference to raise consciousness about meat production. Savage helped found the New York chapter of the British-based Jewish educational group Limmud, and even had a previous life as a Wall Street-type in England. According to his Web site, one of his proudest accomplishments is that he may be "the first English Jew to have cycled across South Dakota on a recumbent bike."
When anti-gay marriage activists put forth Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative seeking to ban gay marriage, Rabbi Denise Eger wasted no time in organizing Jewish opposition to the measure. While the ballot initiative ultimately prevailed on November 4, Eger nevertheless demonstrated her ability to raise the profile of gay rights issues within the Jewish community and spur people to action. The founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s gay and lesbian Reform synagogue, Eger shepherded efforts to pass a resolution by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California opposing Proposition 8. In a huge turnout by the board’s 290 members, 93% voted in favor of the resolution. Eger, 48, also helped organize the L.A.-based group Jews for Marriage Equality and was a founding president of L.A.’s Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Clergy Association. A vice president of the Board of Rabbis for the past six years, Eger is next in line to assume its presidency. If she, indeed, becomes president — which could happen as early as next May — Eger would be not only the first woman to lead the Southern California board, but also the first gay or lesbian.
The Jewish community in America is aging, and few have responded to this demographic challenge with the passion and creativity of Rabbi Dayle Friedman. As a Jewish nursing home chaplain for many years, Friedman pioneered spiritual work with the elderly. Now as director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., she is playing a prophetic role in awakening communal attention to the needs of this graying population. Hiddur’s mission is to enable the elderly to engage in their own spiritual connections and contribute to the broader spiritual community. Friedman, 52, trains rabbis and other Jewish professionals to develop the skills needed to deal with the ever-growing number of bubbes and zaydes in synagogues, care facilities, hospitals and in their own homes. In 2008, she reached a broader audience with a new book, "Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness." With her ever-present smile and engaging manner, Friedman has also become a champion of pushing past the stereotypes that narrowly define the elderly. "My experience is that elders are often more open-minded than younger people," she wrote recently. Just as her older congregants were able to embrace her when she started out as a young female rabbi, Friedman, in her work, encourages all of us to respect the wisdom and potential of age.
When Rabbi Jill Jacobs first introduced a living-wage measure in 2006 to the Conservative movement’s top legal body, she encountered heavy opposition. But the 33-year-old Jacobs, the rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice in New York, didn’t give up. Two years later, in May of this year, her teshuvah, or halachic opinion, arguing that Jewish employers should pay their employees a living wage and strive to hire union workers, was finally adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. A 2003 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jacobs has been a champion of social justice issues — including equality for women, gays and lesbians — since her student days. Later, as education director at the Chicago-based Jewish Council for Urban Affairs, she initiated a program that trained student rabbis to incorporate social justice work into their rabbinate. Jacobs’s spirited activism bodes well for the Conservative movement.
Yosef Kanefsky, 45, shattered a long-standing Orthodox taboo when he suggested last year that Jewish leaders ought to at least consider the idea of a divided Jerusalem. The senior rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a growing Los Angeles Modern Orthodox synagogue, Kanefsky has come to represent the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy on the West Coast. But Kanefsky’s October 2007 opinion piece, "An Orthodox Rabbi’s Plea: Consider a Divided Jerusalem," published in L.A.’s local Jewish weekly, the Jewish Journal, thrust him into the spotlight well beyond the confines of the Jewish world. The Los Angeles Times published a story on the waves of controversy his piece generated. A former associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a New York congregation led by maverick Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss, Kanefsky has long taken positions at odds with the Orthodox establishment. He has allowed women to read from the Torah in their own single-sex services. As a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, he is far more engaged with the non-Orthodox Jewish world than most of his peers. But his nontraditional approach seems to be helping his cause: Over the past year, Kanefsky’s congregation of 300 families has grown by more than 10%.
No one has been more central to the admittedly decentralized world of independent minyanim than Elie Kaunfer. The son of a rabbi, Kaunfer, 35, co-founded the influential Kehilat Hadar minyan on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, then was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since ordination, he and two fellow rabbis — Shai Held and Ethan Tucker — have set up Mechon Hadar, an organization dedicated to drawing the minyanim into a national network and an egalitarian summer yeshiva. Kaunfer has become a link between the small, low-budget minyanim and the big-dollar Jewish donors who are itching to support them. (What could be more promising than young Jews who already like Judaism?) Kaunfer co-authored a study that brought national attention to the minyanim, and he and his comrades have proved to be masters at tapping federations and large foundations. This year, Tucker received a two-year, $200,000 fellowship from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and Kaunfer got another $225,000 over three years from the Avi Chai Foundation. They intend to pour the money into taking Yeshivat Hadar full-time, making it the country’s first full-time, egalitarian yeshiva. Kaunfer and his fellow minyan boosters say they have no interest in denominational politics. But with a national network of prayer groups and their own school for teaching Jewish texts, Kaunfer and friends may find that they have a movement on their hands.
As vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the education arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky oversees what amounts to a fourth main wing of Judaism, with some 5,000 Hasidic rabbis ministering to a vast, loosely affiliated flock of mostly nonobservant Jews. His network includes about 4,000 institutions in 70 countries — synagogues, community centers, parochial schools and preschools from Albuquerque to Zaire, plus prison chaplaincies and a few drug rehab clinics. It’s estimated that a Chabad facility opens up somewhere every week. Kotlarsky, 59, runs the empire with a firm but affable hand, approving new locations, selecting field rabbis (shluchim) and, most important, doling out millions to the field from a donor-funded foundation he controls. He also heads the fast-growing Chabad on Campus Foundation, operating at more than 100 colleges. One of Chabad’s most visible public faces, he travels tirelessly to address gatherings worldwide and presides genially over the massive annual shluchim convention in New York. Outsiders sometimes question Chabad’s aggressive way of moving into small communities, especially in Eastern Europe, and some fret about the free liquor that often seems to help boost attendance. In 2008, Chabad traditionalists attacked Kotlarsky over the movement’s visible presence at the Beijing Olympics. Chabad’s late leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, considered the Olympics idolatrous because they originated as a religious tribute to pagan Greek gods. Still, few argue with success.
A generation ago, the battle over women’s rights in the Conservative movement was at least as heated and divisive as the movement’s more recent squabbles over gay rights. But the ease with which movement leaders welcomed Julie Schonfeld’s recent appointment as the first female executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association for Conservative rabbis, is a welcome reminder of how the radical can, over time, become the commonplace. That said, Schonfeld, 43, will face a tough task. The Conservative movement has struggled for years with declining membership and an aimless sense of mission, and many observers have attributed the malaise to organizational leadership that was out of step with the times. The first step in that turnover came in 2006, when Arnold Eisen replaced Ismar Schorsch as chancellor of the movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, a move that gave Conservative Judaism a welcome shot in the arm. But anxieties, and expectations, remain high. If anybody can see the task through, it may be Schonfeld. She has experience in the pulpit. She has spent the last seven years working at the R.A., so she knows the plumbing. And she is deeply involved with the liberal social causes that many see as essential to the Conservative movement’s future. If Schonfeld can revitalize the R.A., then her gender may be the least for which she is remembered.
For the past few years, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson seemed to be running the tables. Once a newsboy from Boston, Adelson, 75, catapulted into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest when his casino resort company, Las Vegas Sands, went public in 2004. By 2007, he was the third-richest man in America, according to Forbes, and the world’s richest Jew. His money brought Adelson influence. He became a big donor to Jewish causes, including Aipac and Birthright Israel. Rumors flew that he would give away $200 million per year to Jewish causes. When word emerged that he would bankroll a conservative advocacy group, Freedom’s Watch, Republicans hailed him as the conservative answer to George Soros, a believer with bottomless pockets. Now this gambler’s luck may be running out. Over the past year, Sands stock has plummeted more than 90%, costing Adelson tens of billions of dollars on paper, and his spot as the richest Jew. Freedom’s Watch hasn’t taken off. And Adelson appears to be scaling back his Jewish giving, leaving organizations like Birthright scrambling to make up the difference. Just as damaging for the reclusive Adelson, The New Yorker published a damning profile that pulled back the curtains on his brass-knuckles approach to both business and politics. But as the profile made clear, Adelson’s a fighter. Don’t count him out yet.
While the under-40 set is generally perceived as the force behind creative, cutting-edge Jewish philanthropy, Morris Squire is turning that perception on its head. The man behind Moishe Houses — one of the most thinking-out-of-the-box Jewish philanthropic endeavors of the last decade — is an 85-year-old philanthropist, former psychologist and painter who has funneled millions of dollars into his Jewish communal living houses. In 2006, while other donors were funding trips to Israel, Squire — who made his money as the owner of health-care facilities — came up with an idea: Subsidize the rent on a house for a bunch of 20-something Jews, give them a monthly program budget and let them do the rest. Squire’s vision of free-form Jewish community building, in which house members get up to 75% of their rent covered in return for organizing loosely defined Jewish events — even poker nights — is expanding. In the last two years, 26 Moishe Houses have cropped up around the globe from Oakland, Calif., where the first one was established, to Johannesburg, Beijing and Warsaw. Squire divides his time between Santa Barbara, Calif., and Cambodia. Sometimes it takes an octogenarian to generate some of the Jewish world’s most innovative philanthropy.
Michael Steinhardt seems to think he has found the next big idea for building Jewish identity, and now he is putting his money where his mouth is: Hebrew-language charter schools. In May, Steinhardt’s foundation announced that it was backing an application for a new Hebrew-language charter school in Steinhardt’s childhood home of Brooklyn. It’s an idea that suits the legendary former hedge fund manager — bold, controversial, Jewish, but not religious. Steinhardt, 68, has already talked about building a national network of charter schools, so this could be the first of many. While one Steinhardt venture may soon be coming to New York, another recently disappeared when the Steinhardt-backed New York Sun closed its doors. Though technically neither Jewish nor a philanthropy, the Sun was essentially both. Editor-in-chief Seth Lipsky (who founded the English Forward, with backing from Steinhardt) had hoped to found an old-fashioned New York broadsheet with a neoconservative slant, a paper that would challenge The New York Times. The Sun was hawkish on Israel and passionately pro-business. It was not, however, much of a business itself, losing millions of dollars a month. Steinhardt and his fellow backers offered to put up more money if new investors (one might say donors) could be found, but with financial markets in shambles and print newspapers in freefall, the additional millions were lacking, and the Sun set.
Israel was riveted by stories that emerged in May from a Jerusalem courtroom: a Long Island businessman who was an ordained rabbi plying the prime minister with expensive gifts, including cigars, wine and an Italian vacation. Oh, and about $150,000 in cash. The businessman, Morris Talansky, 75, said he "loved" Ehud Olmert, and that the embattled prime minister loved him back. Though Olmert disputes the allegations and the level of affection, the testimony led to his proffered resignation and to Talansky’s own disgrace. The Brooklyn-born Talansky had left the pulpit to work in his family business, then became a prolific fundraiser for Israeli causes, including Shaare Tzedek hospital and the New Jerusalem Fund, which he jointly founded with Olmert to raise money for projects in the capital. When Olmert decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem, Talansky was a strong backer. And when Olmert rose to become prime minister, Talansky thought his political time had come. Now the prime minister is a lame duck and his erstwhile friend is back on Long Island, no longer the man to call to get to the leader of Israel.
CULTURE & MEDIA
Not every blogger lands exclusive interviews with the two leading presidential contenders. But Jeffrey Goldberg isn't just any blogger. Goldberg, 43, is known for his in-depth reports on politics and foreign affairs for publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and The Atlantic — not infrequently filed from scary spots like Taliban madrassas. Lately, Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, has established himself as the elite media's leading Judaic scribe — from an Atlantic cover story exploring Israel's existential challenges to a much-discussed New York Times op-ed scolding American Jewish leaders for having "allowed the partisans of settlement to conflate support for the colonization of the West Bank with support for Israel itself." A former staffer for the Forward, the Long Island-reared writer made aliyah as a young man and served in the Israeli army, before returning to the United States. His 2006 book, "Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide," recounted his complicated relationship with a Palestinian prisoner he once guarded. Goldberg's two presidential candidate interviews, posted on his Atlantic blog, focused on topics such as Israel, Iran, Hamas and the presidential hopefuls' favorite Jewish writers. John McCain, we learned, likes Herman Wouk; Barack Obama enjoys Philip Roth; both have a soft spot for Leon Uris. And Goldberg, we discovered, isn't shy about posing a question containing a Yiddish word like "kishke" to a future president.
After years of being one of the keenest analysts and supporters of Jewish art, New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett edited the definitive book on what "Jewish" has meant across the gamut of modern art. With essays tracing a plethora of different types of art she interrogates the concept of Jewishness without falling into essentialism. She co-edited the "Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times" with Jonathan Karp. Previously, she wrote a book with her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, titled "They Called Me Mayer July," which was a finalist for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award. Her interviews with her father provided the framework for his retrospective paintings of Jewish life in Poland before World War II. In 2006, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett won the National Jewish Book Award for her book "Writing a Modern Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Salo W. Baron." These three books have cemented her place as a producer of and writer about Jewish art — a fact recognized by the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which honored her this year. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a cultural driving force. She co-convened the Working Group on Jews, Religion, and Media at NYU's Center for Religion and Media, and the Jews and Performance colloquium, jointly sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and NYU.
William Kristol wears many hats: magazine editor, newspaper columnist, television pundit and neocon scion. This year, he added another hat: that of shadchan, or matchmaker. Kristol — The New York Times op-ed columnist, Weekly Standard editor, Fox News Channel commentator and son of neoconservative pioneers Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb — was perhaps the most prominent public voice urging John McCain to tap Sarah Palin as his running mate. As early as June, Kristol — a longtime McCainiac who strongly supported the Arizona senator's unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid — was confidently predicting that Palin would be picked for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket. "She's fantastic," he gushed on Fox. Kristol, of course, got his wish. With a Democrat in the White House, neoconservatives on the defensive and a backlash brewing over Kristol's aggressive pro-Palin advocacy, Kristol, 55, is likely to find his influence diminished. Still, he occupies some prominent pulpits and is sure to be a vigorous participant in debates over the Republican Party's future. A foreign-policy hawk and ally of the Israeli right, Kristol and his Weekly Standard may also find new purpose as critics of an Obama administration's approach to the Middle East.
It's hard to believe now, but when Shmarya Rosenberg started his blog, FailedMessiah.com, he was an observant, Orthodox Jew. When the blog got him into hot water with the local Orthodox Jewish community, Rosenberg chose his blog and left his observance behind. In his blog, Rosenberg turns an obsessive and hostile eye on the Orthodox world. Day after day and night after night, Rosenberg, 50, trolls the Internet, digging up new stories of pedophilia, financial chicanery, political extremism and more in the Orthodox world. He has been a particularly harsh — and thorough — chronicler of the many failings of kosher meat giant Agriprocessors. One of Rosenberg's biggest moments came in July, when he nailed public relations firm 5W PR for posting comments on blogs under other people's names as part of its defense of client Agriprocessors. 5W furiously denied the charges — then confessed. As the dozens of comments that appear after each posting on his blog show, Rosenberg has provided an unusual online gathering place for a whole community.
Adam Sandler's movie,"You Don't Mess With the Zohan," raked in an impressive $100 million at the domestic box office this year. Not since Paul Newman's 1960 epic "Exodus" has Israel played so big on Main Street. Indeed, Sandler's "Zohan" grossed twice as much domestically as Steven Spielberg's 2005 Oscar-nominated drama "Munich," which likewise focused on a war-weary Israeli terrorist-hunter who finds refuge in New York City. But whereas Spielberg used Israel's experience fighting terror as an excuse to offer a high-minded, post-9/11 morality lesson, Sandler used it as an excuse to offer a spot-on spoof of Israelis' love of hummus, fondness for cheesy dance music and propensity for bluntness verging on rudeness. And compared with the tortured soul played by the goyish Eric Bana in "Munich," Sandler's hilariously impulsive commando-turned-hairdresser seemed — awful accent aside — like a genuine sabra. "I know a few guys like Zohan," one young Israeli movie-goer told the Associated Press. Sandler's brand of humor may owe more to frat row than it does to the Borscht Belt, but the 42-year-old funnyman has never been shy about loudly announcing his Jewishness — whether he's abruptly donning a yarmulke and tallit in his 2004 womanizer-falls-for-amnesiac flick "50 First Dates" or crooning about "people who are Jewish, just like you and me" for his instant holiday radio standard, "The Hanukkah Song."
In the cloistered world of ultra-Orthodox Jewry, Hasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer is a superstar. Mixing Hasidic musical traditions and contemporary pop sounds, the 30-year-old Skverer Hasid has become something of a sensation — though not an uncontroversial one. In March, Schmeltzer was set to headline a charity benefit at Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theater. A little more than two weeks before the concert, some of American ultra-Orthodoxy's leading rabbinic authorities issued an edict banning attendance. They warned that the event would cause "ribaldry and lightheadedness." Out of respect for rabbinic authority, Schmeltzer deferred to the decree and the concert was canceled. But the ban generated a fierce backlash. Some people suggested that fanatics had misled the rabbis about the nature of the concert, which, consistent with communal norms, was to have separate seating for men and women. Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the Hasidic stronghold of Boro Park, told The New York Times: "In all my 26 years of representing this community, I can't remember anything that has so shaken the people." Schmeltzer, for his part, has continued making music — and drawing appreciative crowds at public appearances. The title of his latest album can be seen as a rejoinder to critics who regard his pop-inflected songs and burgeoning popularity as threats to traditional Jewish values. It is called "A Poshiter Yid" — Yiddish for "A Simple Jew."
Scholars want to be judged by the quality, not the quantity, of their work, but in the case of Mexican-born literary critic Ilan Stavans, the numbers are inescapable. Simply put, the range and volume of his writing and expertise — and influence — are astonishing. A tenured professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Amherst College, Stavans has areas of interest that range from Latin American Jewry to Spanish and Yiddish literature, the immigrant experience, the evolution of language and the cultural role of dictionaries. At 47, he has written no fewer than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, three of them in 2008, and edited 14 more, including definitive anthologies of Pablo Neruda's poetry and Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories. Three more of his books are due out by the summer of 2009, notably a groundbreaking, 2,000-page anthology of Latino literature. For all that, he's not simply a collector of dry facts. His theories of language are hotly debated around the world. He hosted his own PBS talk show for five years and helped stage-manage the 2004 I.B. Singer centenary celebrations (including a special section in the Forward). But nothing captures his complexity better than his latest books: a study of the modern rebirth of Hebrew and a graphic novel titled "Mr. Spic Goes to Washington." Yes, one man can move worlds.
Comedian Jon Stewart may or may not be "the citizens' surrogate" inside politics, as Tom Brokaw grandly called him, much less "the most trusted man in America," as The New York Times wrote last August. But he's certainly high on the list. "The Daily Show," Stewart's wildly popular mock-news cable television show, is said to be the main source of news for the under-30 set. No one else in television matches Stewart, 46, at exposing politicians' hypocrisy. There's no disputing Stewart's stature as the public face of a supposedly lost generation of American Jews: politically liberal, thoroughly American and proudly if ambivalently Jewish. No one on air is more casually, openly Jewish, and never more so than in this presidential year. In June, he skewered the candidates for pandering to the pro-Israel vote. (On John McCain visiting Israel with Senator Joseph Lieberman in tow: "You know, when you go to Israel you don't have to bring your own Jew — there's a wide variety of Jews there.") In October, he lampooned Congress for delaying the financial bailout plan to adjourn for Rosh Hashanah ("I mean, seriously, Utah, you're not coming in for Rosh Hashanah?"). But always with affection: Last fall he mentioned to Tony Blair that his wife was Catholic and he was Jewish. When Blair asked how it was working out, Stewart replied: "We're raising our children to be sad."
Jews have a tradition of breaking records in swimming events at the Olympics. Lenny Krayzelburg won all three U.S. swimming gold medals at the 2000 Games. Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972, setting the record for the most golds won at a single Olympics — a record that lasted until this year, when Michael Phelps topped him with eight golds. And then there's Dara Torres of Parkland, Fla. Though only Torres's father was Jewish, she converted to Judaism before her second marriage and it became part of her incredible story line. This year, the 41-year-old became the first swimmer from the United States to compete in five Olympics. In Beijing, Torres was the oldest swimmer at the Games and became the oldest swimming medalist in Olympics history. Torres, who has won 12 Olympic medals since her first Games in 1984, returned to the pool after a six-year break from competition and the birth of her daughter, Tessa Torres-Hoffman, in 2006.
Ilana Trachtman, 37, hadn't planned to enter the risky business of independent documentary filmmaking, but when she encountered Lior Liebling, a pre-bar mitzvah boy with Down Syndrome, she set aside a successful career as a television documentary producer and took the plunge. The result is Trachtman's groundbreaking "Praying With Lior," a feature-length documentary that explores the life of Lior (also known as "the little rebbe"), his family and the question of whether someone with Down Syndrome can be considered a "spiritual genius." The film, which culminates with Lior's bar mitzvah, has garnered at least five audience awards at Jewish film festivals since it began screening in 2007. But more impressive than the awards and critical acclaim won by "Praying With Lior" has been its far-reaching impact on the Jewish community. Trachtman's documentary has broken the silence on special-needs children and adults in the Jewish community, forcing a long-overdue dialogue on a topic that touches many thousands of Jewish lives.
Matthew Weiner is ruthless. His critically acclaimed TV series on AMC, "Mad Men," is mercilessly raw and brutally honest. Weiner, 43, the show's executive producer and creator, gets to the core of the American story — and the Jewish American story — through nuanced portraits of outsiders, loners and underdogs. The backdrop is a WASP-y Manhattan advertising agency in the 1960s. The show's Jewish characters — Rachel Menken, the head of a Jewish department store, and Jimmy Barrett, a loud-mouthed comedian and TV personality — are complex, subtle and layered, and avoid easy, one-dimensional stereotypes. "Mad Men" won six Emmy awards this year, including one for best drama, but its greater accomplishment was in shaping perceptions of who Jews are and where we came from.
The May immigration raid that hit Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse, was an unusual Jewish story: The people arrested in the raid had worked in the Postville, Iowa, plant so that Jewish consumers could have affordable kosher meat. Yet the job of cleaning up the humanitarian mess that followed that raid was taken up not by the local Jewish community but by Postville's Catholic church and its leader, Father Paul Ouderkirk. Ouderkirk, who has spent most of his life running Hispanic ministries at Midwestern churches, is part of a long Catholic tradition of ministering to the underprivileged of Latin America, no matter where they live. Before the raid, Ouderkirk was practically the only local voice to speak out about indignities endured by Agriprocessors workers. Now 75, he acted despite having retired from St. Bridget's Catholic Church. After the raid, Ouderkirk gave up what leisure time he had to take on the full-time job of helping the hundreds of immigrants affected. He led the church's efforts to raise money for the workers, soldiering alongside Paul Real, the church's lay pastor, and Violeta Iseman, an Agriprocessors employee turned social worker. The church has been the only source of food and shelter for dozens of workers who were arrested and released. Ouderkirk and his team showed that in the face of disaster, religion can provide the surest relief..