Five different Jewish organizations commissioned demographic studies in the past year to explore the mind of the under-35 set, and they all found the same thing: Young Jews tend to be open, at times passionate, about their Jewish identity and heritage, but they couldn’t care less about Jewish organizations. They’re looking for meaning, mission, social justice, spiritual uplift and a good time — not a membership card. When they seek ways to express their Jewishness, they’re likely to start their search at a film festival or comedy club — or volunteering in a soup kitchen. When they gather to pray, it’s probably in somebody’s basement. Call them the disorganized Jewish community. They used to be the Jewish future, but they’re rapidly becoming the here and now.
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.
To be sure, Jewish organizations didn’t go entirely unnoticed this year. On the contrary, the big agencies experienced an explosion of public comment this year. But it wasn’t coming from the Jews they wanted to reach. Rather, the agencies found themselves in a glare of hostile attention from a growing army of critics who accuse “pro-Israel lobbyists” — mostly Jewish — of bamboozling America into a deadly Middle East quagmire. The accusation, simmering on the fringes of polite discourse since just before the Iraq war, burst into the public eye this past spring with the publication of a lengthy academic paper titled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Its distinguished authors: John Mearsheimer, head of foreign policy studies at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The Walt-Mearsheimer paper and its continuing fallout added a painful new wrinkle to the Jewish community’s tradition of pro-Israel advocacy, putting Jewish activists on the defensive and emboldening their foes. A handful of Jews welcomed the furor as an overdue opportunity for frank discussion; many more decried it as rank bigotry. But nobody could overlook it. In a year when the world’s headlines were dominated by war and terrorism, when the ravings of antisemites echoed from the streets of Tehran to the beaches of Malibu, it was hard to ignore the dark clouds.
This year’s Forward 50 includes 51 entries, to make room for an individual whose accidental discovery of his own Jewish identity rattled the political landscape in the closing weeks of a crucial election season: Virginia Senator George Allen. Time will tell how this very public Christian conservative, who learned in August that he was born to a Jewish mother, absorbs the news of his hidden past. For the rest of us, the episode offered some odd lessons in the mysteries of identity.
The Forward 50 is not based on a scientific survey or a democratic election. Names have been suggested by our readers and by our own staff. Each year’s compilation is a journalistic effort to record some of the key trends and events in American Jewish life in the year just ended, and to illuminate some of the individuals likely to shape the news in the year ahead.
Membership in the 50 doesn’t mean that the Forward endorses what these individuals do or say. We’ve chosen them because they are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves. Not all these people have put their energies into the traditional frameworks of Jewish community life, but they all have embodied the spirit of Jewish action as it is emerging in America, and all of them have left a mark.