As the Conservative movement picks its way through a host of hot-button debates — from ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis to accepting interfaith families — Rabbi Jill Jacobs has almost single-handedly forced the movement to refocus on one of the oldest issues on the social agenda: workers’ rights. Three years ago, Jacobs, fresh out of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, first presented the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards with a rabbinic opinion, or teshuva, calling for Jewish business owners to give workers a living wage and, when possible, to hire union employees. Now, at the youthful age of 31, the zealous labor activist and the director of education at Jewish Funds for Justice isn’t backing down in her quest to position Conservative Judaism in line with the needs of American workers. While her opinion failed to win approval in September on its third pass before the religious lawmaking body, Jacobs is still tweaking her 53-page opinion paper — and hoping that the fourth time’s the charm.
For nearly two decades, in a bitterly partisan era, diplomat Dennis Ross commanded respect on both sides of the aisle as coordinator of Israeli-Arab peace efforts in the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. These days he works as a scholar and commentator for two hawkish-leaning outfits, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Fox News Channel; yet he remains a forceful voice for a vigorous American role in the peace process and for U.S. engagement with Syria, and he recently lent his name to an Israel Policy Forum effort to draft peace policy recommendations for the current Bush administration. More recently, he has begun working to bridge the growing divide between Israeli and American Jews, as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank created by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The institute’s mandate is to plan for the future, but this year Ross, 58, found himself focusing on the here and now: He played a lead role in taking on political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer after they issued their broadside against the “Israel Lobby.” In the year ahead, Ross is likely to find himself serving once again as an important conduit to Jerusalem, now that Israel’s ambassador to Washington is Sallai Meridor. The two men became close when Ross was working for the first Bush administration and Meridor was in the Likud-controlled defense ministry; and it was Meridor who tapped Ross to head the Jewish Agency think tank.
Susan Tuchman scored a significant victory for the Zionist Organization of America when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights agreed to investigate the 2004 complaint she filed against the University of California, Irvine, alleging a pattern of antisemitism on the Orange County campus. It was the first case of anti-Jewish harassment on an American college campus to win a formal government probe. As Jewish students on such campuses as Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, charged that professors were stifling pro-Israel voices in the classroom and intimidating them into silence, Tuchman — a Boston litigator before becoming director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice in 2003 — was the first to put legal teeth into Jewish organizations’ warnings of rising anti-Israel sentiment in university classrooms. Tuchman, 49, later testified at a November 2005 hearing convened by a separate office, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to air allegations of antisemitism both inside and outside of the classroom. The result of that hearing was a groundbreaking set of findings and recommendations released this past spring, which concluded that Jewish students are protected under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal anti-discrimination statute that bars discrimination on the basis of national origin.
An Air Force veteran turned church-state gadfly who compares himself to napalm, Mikey Weinstein has successfully trained national attention on the hidden phenomenon of religious proselytizing within the military. After warning last year that his two sons had felt religious intolerance at his alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the onetime Reagan administration official and general counsel to H. Ross Perot won an official investigation into practices at the school. When the Air Force finally issued a watered-down set of sensitivity guidelines last winter, Weinstein, 51, was one of a minority of Jewish voices who objected. This past year, Weinstein sued the federal government over ongoing problems at the academy. He also turned his one-man campaign into the not-for-profit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which tracks church-state violations throughout the military. He’s attracted a list of marquee backers, including Bush critic Joseph Wilson and his wife, ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame. And there’s more: Last July, St. Martin’s Press published his memoir, “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” Later this year, Weinstein and his sons will be featured in a documentary about Christian-Jewish relations by Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby.