In Newsweek’s List of America’s Top Rabbis, Hier is Highest

By Gabriel Sanders

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Winning a few Oscars and hanging out with Governor Arnold might be enough to get you a place on the Forward 50, but good luck cracking the top five. Thankfully for Rabbi Marvin Hier, however, now there’s another game in town with a preference for Los Angeles-based rabbis.

This week, Newsweek published its own Top 50 list — a survey of America’s most influential rabbis.

The ranking, described briefly in an article titled “Choosing the Chosen” and run in its entirety on the magazine’s Web site, was compiled not by the Newsweek staff, but by three prominent media industry figures: Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment; Gary Ginsberg, an executive with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Jay Sanderson, CEO of the Jewish Television Network.

The list, which is topped by Hier, dean and founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, draws mainly from pulpit and organizational rabbis affiliated with Judaism’s three primary streams (15 Orthodox, 10 Conservative, 18 Reform) and puts a premium on visibility and media exposure.

Though based on a 100-point scoring system (national/international recognition, 20 points; community leader, 10 points, etc.) the list was described by its compliers as essentially unscientific and subjective — a pet project, a hobby, a lark.

“Instead of talking about who the greatest rock guitarist was, or the greatest first baseman, we’re talking about rabbis,” Sanderson told the Forward.

At the same time, the list assemblers spoke of more serious ambitions.

“We see this as an opportunity to open up a conversation about rabbis, their evolving role and the changing landscape of Judaism,” said Sanderson, who added that Newsweek may be moving on to lists for other religious groups now, as well.

The response from rabbis on the list seemed to mix gratitude with a hint of embarrassment. Many offered a good-natured take on what the list did and did not do.

“I don’t think their criteria included learning,” Hier said. “There are so many outstanding scholars who are not on it. I was certainly shocked to hear that I was number one.”

Coming in at number 33 was Marc Schneier, founding rabbi of two New York-area synagogues and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Schneier said he was dismayed to see that he was one of only two rabbis on the list wearing both a congregational and an organizational hat — a deficiency that he attributes to the rabbinate and not to the list’s compilers.

Asked if the exclusion of his father, prominent congregational-organizational rabbi Arthur Schneier, was going to cause any intra-family trouble, Schneier demurred. “As far as I’m concerned, my father should be ranked number one,” he said.

Number six on the list, David Ellenson, who is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he was gratified to see that a mainstream publication like Newsweek had turned its attention to rabbis. At the same time, he was disappointed by the low number of women on the list — five. “This shows that women still need to be advanced into the top echelons of American Jewish institutional life,” he said.

Reaction in the blogosphere was more barbed, with posters to both the Newsweek Web site and Jewish blogs questioning the qualifications of the listers and those of some of the listed. Some argued that an “L.A. bias” accounted for the high placement of Hier, the Kabbalah Centre’s Yehuda Berg (number four) and other West Coast rabbis.

For his part, Lynton, the originator of the idea, was pleased by the response — and would be more than glad to update the list annually, he told the Forward. He was also happy to have gotten it published before Passover. “At our Seder,” he said, “everyone sits around and has debates. We were hopeful that this would be a fun thing for people to talk about.”

And what of the Forward 50, the Forward’s annual list of the Jewish world’s movers and shakers?

“We looked at it, and love it,” Lynton said diplomatically “This is just a different thing.”


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