When we set out to compile this year’s Forward 50 list of the most influential members of the American Jewish community, we found our mailboxes filled with names of individuals who are struggling to navigate that tectonic shift. Some are media stars who bring Jewish identity into the mainstream culture in compelling or inspiring ways. Some are young rabbis and entrepreneurs. Some are traditional community leaders who are finding ways to steer their institutions across the changing terrain.
Early next fall, religious studies professor Arnie Eisen of Stanford University will move to New York and become Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the nominal leader of Conservative Judaism in America. And then the tests will begin. Can a layman whose background is in social sciences take the reins of a world-renowned academy with a rabbinical seminary at its heart? Can a genial, mild-mannered thinker lead Conservative Judaism to rediscover its identity and to re-establish itself as the great middle ground of American Judaism? Most of all, in a Jewish community that is fraying at the edges, hardening at the core and polarizing between left and right, can the center hold? The seminary, as well as the larger Conservative movement for which it serves as incubator and beacon, is in flux. Membership rolls are thinning and graying, and leaders are bracing for a showdown over the divisive issue of gay ordination. For all the doubts, though, Eisen’s selection has been met with enormous enthusiasm. The choice was a bold one. At Stanford since 1986, Eisen, 55, has focused his research on the changing nature of Judaism in America today. American Jews, Eisen has argued, have become more autonomous in charting their individual religious identities and put less stock in religious institutions than they once did. Institutions and leaders need to recognize the new reality and find their place in it. Perhaps a leader who understands this fundamental new truth can give Conservative Judaism - and through it, the larger community - the jolt it needs.
Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer
No one raised an eyebrow when the Democratic Party decided, in its bid to recapture Congress this year, to name a pair of boychiks from the old neighborhood to mastermind the campaign: Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Northside Chicago, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Senator Chuck Schumer of Brooklyn, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Both are aggressive campaigners who managed to breathe some much-needed moxie into the party while avoiding the gaffes that sank fellow party leaders like Howard Dean and John Kerry. Schumer, 55, entered the Senate in 1998, after 18 years in the House, representing the most heavily Jewish district in Brooklyn. In the House he was known as a superhawk on Israel and an archliberal on everything else. In the Senate he’s considered Public Enemy No. 1 by the gun lobby, and he’s led Democratic opposition to conservative Bush judicial nominations. A Brooklynite to the core, his national image was summed up by a Midwestern newspaper columnist who wrote this summer, on learning of Virginia GOP Senator George Allen’s Jewish roots, that it was “like hearing that Chuck Schumer was a Southern Baptist.” As for Emanuel, 46, he is a son of an Israeli e´migre´ who entered national politics as one of the whiz kids of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential war room. He served in the Clinton White House as political director and domestic policy chief - Bubba’s Karl Rove - before winning a House seat in 2002, the first person of Israeli origin ever elected to Congress. This summer he led a group of Democrats in boycotting a congressional speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who had just lambasted Israel’s war against Hezbollah. For the November contest, both Schumer and Emanuel made a point - despite their own unabashed liberalism - of recruiting moderate and conservative Democrats who could win in Red states. Both then proceeded to raise unprecedented sums of money. It’s been said that just as the Jews maintained the Sabbath, so the Sabbath maintained the Jews. Apparently, the same thing goes for the Democratic Party.
If a man can be known by the enemies he makes, then Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, must be one of the toughest Jews in America. Now in his 20th year as ADL chief, Foxman, 66, has become a magnet for attacks by critics of Israel, opponents of the Israel lobby and just plain Jew-bashers who like to take him on in hopes of showing how tough they are. The latest of these slapdowns came last month in a public letter addressed to Foxman, signed by 114 prominent American intellectuals, upbraiding him for a phone call - which he never made - supposedly bullying the Polish consul in New York to cancel a lecture by historian Tony Judt. Why do they pick on Foxman? Mostly because they’ve heard of him. With his raspy voice, blunt manner and track record of success, he’s arguably the most recognizable individual in the entire Jewish institutional network. It follows that if a Jewish group spoke out, it must have been Foxman’s ADL. And if Foxman spoke out, he must have been accusing someone of antisemitism - probably unfairly, critics suspect. In real life, the ADL chief has spent much of the past year on a campaign to warn Americans of the dangers of the religious right and its anti-democratic tendencies toward homophobia, bigotry and religious coercion. Foxman wants Jews especially to speak out against the Christian right, even if it means threatening their alliance with Israel, because democracy, in his view, is indivisible. In his spare time he runs a $50 million-a-year operation that conducts tolerance training for police, brings together black and Jewish teenagers and teaches synagogues how to beef up security.
In November 1997, after Ruth Messinger was trounced in her bid to unseat New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, ending her long career in municipal politics, the smart money said the onetime schoolteacher and city councilwoman would slip quietly into obscurity. Nine years later, Messinger, 66, is more visible than ever on the world stage, firmly established as La Pasionaria of Jewish social activism. President of American Jewish World Service, she runs a worldwide network of economic development and social change programs - 250 projects in 40 countries - and commands a small army of volunteers around the globe fighting disease, building water systems, teaching literacy and, not incidentally, making friends for the Jewish people. In 2005, as we noted in last year’s Forward 50, she was in the Oval Office advising President Bush on how to get emergency relief to tsunami-ravaged South Asia. This past spring found her outside the White House, leading a mass rally to demand an end to genocide in Darfur. No single American has been more central in mobilizing public protest over the genocide in Sudan; it’s part of her larger vision of religious engagement with Africa and the Third World. When the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, appeared before the United Nations General Assembly in September and accused “Zionist organizations” of cooking up the international outcry against his government’s massacres, few listeners had any doubt whom he had in mind.
He may deliver his “fake news” with a smirk and offer some of the best-rated comedy on television, but Jon Stewart’s success is no joke. Brian Williams, anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” calls him “a freestanding branch of government.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says that even though she reads 10 newspapers a day, she still takes notes while watching him. An Indiana University study released earlier this year found that “The Daily Show,” Stewart’s nightly romp through politics and culture, is “just as substantive” as network news. He was in the limelight at this year’s two biggest award shows, hosting the Oscars and walking away with the Emmys. With his snarky dissections of government double-talk, Stewart may have done more to turn public opinion against the Iraq war (Mess-O’Potamia, he calls it) than any other media figure in America today. When his barbs begin to seem too earnest, he’s often brought down to earth by one of his “Daily Show correspondents” accusing him of “effete, East Coast Jewy-ness” or something similar. Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz (he dropped Leibowitz, he’s said, because it sounded “too Hollywood”), he grew up playing in his high school band, idolizing Eugene V. Debs and feeling like an outcast among gentiles. Now, at 43 (even here he has the president’s number), he needn’t worry anymore. But that doesn’t stop him. “Jon is driven,” his friend and producer Ben Karlin told Rolling Stone recently, “by the forces of guilt and shame and fear of being on the outside that gives Jews their comic angst.”