Pro-Israel students on campus made major news this year with their complaints about anti-Israel bias in the classroom. The man connecting all the dots behind the scenes was Wayne Firestone, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The battles reached their apogee at Columbia University, where a few students went to the media to broadcast grievances against allegedly anti-Israel professors. Firestone, 41, was never one for showy and divisive comments, but he worked quietly to support the students while also trying to reconcile warring parties. In addition to his work with right-wing students, Firestone has pushed to create more room on campus for pro-Israel left-wing students who have often felt shut out of the on-campus Jewish community. This fall he initiated a major campaign to move some of the focus on Israel from the political to the cultural, thereby providing a common ground for Jewish students. Firestone has become a favorite among the students who flock to Hillel’s Israel advocacy conferences. He was rewarded last month when Hillel named him its top American official, charged with overseeing a major strategic overhaul.
Liberals spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the Bush administration’s cuts in federal funding for the poor. William Rapfogel, longtime executive director of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, spends his time doing something about it. His agency, the only Jewish organization of its kind in the country, spends about $120 million per year, nearly all of it government money, on programs to serve the city’s estimated 220,000 poor Jews. One of the biggest nonprofits in New York, the council builds and operates low-income housing, gives out food and clothing, runs shelters for the homeless and mentally ill, supplies home heating assistance, health care and much more. A pragmatic Democrat who previously worked at the Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Congress, Rapfogel joined the council in 1992 and was a regular visitor to the Clinton White House. Since President Bush’s inauguration, he’s made it his business to stay on the guest list. Bush happily touts him and his agency as models of faith-based social-service delivery, and Rapfogel reciprocates by appearing with the president and talking up his programs. Most of what he has to say, however, is about the persistence of poverty and the need to attack it with determination, brains — and tax dollars.
It’s hard to run programs in the Jewish world that are both successful and free of controversy (especially with the Forward looking over your shoulder). But the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has done just that under the direction of its executive vice-president, Steven Schwager. Since taking over from Michael Schneider in 2002, Schwager, 57, has kept the storied, 90-year-old relief agency running seamlessly — not a small feat at a global operation with an annual budget of $240 million and close to a million mouths to feed. Founded in 1914 to help Jews in war-torn Poland, the JDC now works in 63 countries. It feeds hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews every day in the former Soviet Union, using funds provided by the Swiss banking settlement, and has been the provider of last resort for Argentina’s 200,000 Jews since that country’s economy collapsed in the late 1990s. The second-largest recipient of UJA-Federation funds nationwide, after the Jewish Agency for Israel, it’s increasingly seen by donors as the overseas agency of choice — due to the Israeli giant’s continuing woes as well as Schwager’s deft management. Still, Schwager has begun relying less on federation campaigns and building up his own fund-raising machine, more than doubling the agency’s size. And it keeps growing.
When cyber-cupid Joe Shapira founded his JDate Web site with a friend in 1997, his ambitions were relatively modest. A bachelor at the time, he was hoping to find a way to line up some dates for himself without suffering the indignity of a visit to a matchmaker. As it happened, many others were in the same boat. JDate today boasts more than 600,000 active members, plus a section for success stories numbering in the hundreds. The Beverly Hills-based Shapira, 52, who’s now married (reportedly not through JDate), may be doing more to further the cause of Jewish continuity than anyone else on earth. But he’s also built a successful business. JDate’s success encouraged Shapira, a Tel Aviv native, to launch a series of sister sites with names like BlackSinglesConnection.com and ChristianMingle.com, all grouped under the Spark Networks umbrella, which reported 2004 revenues of $65 million — 40% of it from JDate — and claims some 10 million members. That’s a lot of lonely hearts, but with Shapira’s help, love may just be a click away.
The executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Sokatch is at the center of a budding resurgence of Jewish liberalism in Los Angeles. His organization was born in 1999 when the national American Jewish Congress dissolved its Los Angeles chapter and the members refused to disband. Starting with 250 activists, the group has grown to a membership of 3,000 and a staff of 10; this year they opened a second office in San Francisco. Sokatch, 37, an attorney by training, has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes. This year he added a new program, recruiting Jewish activists to mentor youth offenders in an alternative-sentencing deal with the district attorney’s office. He’s now aiming to recruit entire synagogues to his social justice campaigns. And a campaign to help unionized hotel workers led to a national Jewish conference on union support in November.
Carole Solomon walked into a lions’ den — nothing to do with her beloved Lion of Judah UJA donors’ pin — when she was elected in 2003 to chair the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Israeli press accounts at the time indicated that the Philadelphia native was backed heavily by the agency’s Israeli management because she was seen as more amenable and less likely to scrutinize the operation than the candidate favored by the agency’s American funders, United Jewish Communities chairman Robert Goldberg. Solomon, a veteran UJA-Federation fund-raiser and professional volunteer, narrowly won the race, becoming the first woman to head the massive Israel-based social-service agency — and the first chairperson whose annual gift was less than $1 million. Not surprisingly, things have run smoothly on her watch. The agency has launched important new programs, including initiatives in the former Soviet Union as well as an admired think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, and Diaspora-Israeli friction has been minimal. But she hasn’t been a pushover. When one-time Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky made a bid for the agency’s top professional post last spring — prompting bitter objections because of his right-wing politics — Solomon had the courage to say no.
The feds might have taken their time responding to Hurricane Katrina, but the Jewish community was on the ground immediately, and few were more in the thick of things than Rabbi Stanton Zemek of Temple Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge, La., 80 miles north of New Orleans. When the storm hit, Zemek quickly turned his synagogue — one of two in Baton Rouge — into a processing center for the evacuees pouring out of the flood zone. Zemek had relatives come live with him so he could work around the clock, rounding up supplies and mapping out relocations. A few weeks after the storm, Zemek himself went into New Orleans to gather stranded Torah scrolls. Outsiders followed Zemek’s struggles on a Web log he set up, and he was singled out in a September 21 speech by President Bush reviewing Jewish responses to the hurricane. The communal relief efforts involved thousands of efforts like Zemek’s, and most went without any notice. Just days after Bush’s speech, though, Zemek experienced the other side when his synagogue was hit by Hurricane Rita, flooding the sanctuary and driving the congregation to a local Baptist church. Working just as hard to save his own shul, Zemek had his congregation back in its sanctuary soon after the High Holy Days.