Leading the Jewish Way
Assembling the Forward 50 is like taking a stroll through recent history. Certain landmarks become immediately visible, while others take longer to discern. The Jewish story in the last year was characterized by the traditional worries ? about the Jewish future in America, about Israel?s future in the Middle East ? punctuated by a new set of crises and concerns. The toxic national political environment gave rise to more polarizing Jewish voices on the left and the right, who argued over candidates, causes and Islamic centers; over who is responsible for Israel?s faltering world image and for the growing alienation among young American Jews.
But there were also reasons to celebrate. Imagine: It no longer is unusual for a Jewish woman, such as Elena Kagan, to serve on the nation?s highest court, or for a Jewish man, Eric Cantor, to be a Republican leader in Congress. The explosion in internet use and social media that connect us in both salutory and frightening ways have allowed entrepreneurs like the Russian-born Sergey Brin to bring staggering technological advances to market.
This year we saw the firm ascension of Russian Jewish leadership in both Israel and America, illustrated here by Misha Galperin, charged with nothing less than helping to transform the Jewish Agency from a sprawling organization in search of mission to an engine for promoting Jewish identity.
And with all the changes, the verities remain. Nicole Krauss represents just one of a number of Jewish writers, artists and performers whose creations pull deep from a specific, rich tradition while appealing to a broad, modern and sophisticated audience.
The Forward 50 is an impressionistic list, not a scientific survey. It is compiled by staff members (with input from readers) who search for men and women who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in a Jewish way. These are people whose religious and cultural values propelled them to engage, serve, lead, entertain, educate, create, advocate and exasperate in a decidedly Jewish voice. Let them inspire us, too.
The most widely used online search engine in the world was co-founded by a Russian Jewish immigrant, the formidable Sergey Brin. Brin, now 37, and Larry Page created Google 12 years ago while pursuing their graduate degrees at Stanford University; they dropped out, and the company they formed is now worth $150 billion, with a name so ubiquitous it?s become a verb.
This was a banner year for the media giant, whose corporate culture is known for fostering creativity and curiosity through unconventional means (its headquarters offers ping-pong tables and meditation groups). Earlier this year, Google declined to submit its search engines to Chinese censorship and pulled out of the country, a bold act that could have serious long-term economic ramifications. Brin?s principled stand may be a reflection of his personal history. His family battled Soviet anti-Semitism early in life (the Communist regime prevented his father from getting a higher education) before immigrating to the United States when Sergey was 6 years old.
Last November, on the 30th anniversary of the family?s arrival here, Brin gave an unrestricted gift of $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which had helped secure visas for his family. Brin was recently named to Fortune magazine?s ?40 under 40? list (again) and to Vanity Fair?s ?100 Influential Moguls.? But it?s clear he hasn?t forgotten his Jewish roots or HIAS, which helped his family, as he wrote on his blog, ?start life anew in this land.?
Serving as minority whip, the second-ranking Republican in the House, should have given Eric Cantor visibility enough. But the five-term Virginia congressman decided this year to reach further. He took a leading role with the Republican ?Young Guns? who are seeking to reform the party and return to its roots ? small government and lower taxes.
But most of his energy has been dedicated to fighting the Democrats. In a year marked by a surging Republican momentum, Cantor drove the battle against health care reform and made the case for reducting the federal debt. He was also the main Republican voice attacking President Obama over his tough stance against West Bank settlement expansion.
In a way, it was also a lonely year for Cantor. He remained the sole Jewish Republican in Congress. Cantor is a member of an Orthodox synagogue in his hometown of Richmond, but he has not been invited to meetings of the informal Jewish congressional caucus, which is composed entirely of Democrats.
But Cantor, 47, has little time to dwell on the issue. If Republicans take over the House in the midterm elections, he is well positioned to capture a powerful leadership post there, spurring on rumors of a 2012 vice presidential bid.
This year, the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to shift its focus. In order to stay relevant, it has taken on the goal of promoting ?peoplehood,? finding ways to instill a sense of Jewish identity and connection in the next generation. No one has been more at the forefront of this concept than Misha Galperin, 52. A Soviet Jew who immigrated to this country from Odessa in 1976 at the age of 18 and then later, as a clinical psychologist, worked with the immigrant community, Galperin was the first Russian to head a large Jewish federation when he became the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
The co-author of a study, ?The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One?? he was named in March to a senior position in Global Jewish Affairs at the Jewish Agency. His role will be to restructure the quasi-governmental organization so that it can move its focus away from aliyah ? its traditional function ? to the kind of programs that will work toward its new ?peoplehood? orientation.
This turn toward Jewish identity has not come without controversy. Some question whether it is the role of the Jewish Agency to do this kind of work in the Diaspora. But Galperin sees the agency?s newly refined mission to connect Jews all over the world with Israel as necessary to his people?s survival.
The résumé of newly appointed Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan is a litany of firsts. She was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School, the first woman to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, and, in 1973, the first young woman to become a bat mitzvah at New York?s Lincoln Square Synagogue. ?This was for us a watershed moment,? Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, spiritual leader of Lincoln Square at the time, said in a recent interview with The Jewish Week. ?After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time.?
In August, Kagan, 50, became the third sitting Jewish justice on the Supreme Court when the Senate confirmed her appointment. She is a child of the Upper West Side, the heavily Jewish Manhattan neighborhood home to Columbia University and Zabar?s market. Now fairly affluent, the area was rundown in the 1970s, and the Jews who lived there gave voice to a heady strain of liberalism.
Kagan herself wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Socialist Party. Despite her roots, she turned out to be a relatively uncontroversial Supreme Court nominee, even winning the support of a handful of Republican senators. What remains to be seen is how Kagan will impact the tone and balance of a Supreme Court that many observers say is the most ideologically polarized in years.
A number of factors have kept Nicole Krauss in the public eye even when she isn?t publishing a new novel. She has made herself known through a judicious smattering of short stories in Harper?s and The New Yorker (where she was named this year one of their 20 writers under 40), and she is also famous by association: Her husband is novelist Jonathan Safran Foer.
Krauss, 36, has shown an increasing historical breadth and intensity in her novels: moving from loss of memory to loss of love to vast historical loss. ?Man Walks Into a Room?(2002) followed a man who suddenly lost his memory; ?The History of Love? (2005) was a self-aware love story stretching across the 20th century (and through the Holocaust); and this year?s ?Great House,? describes a sweeping arc of the history of destruction.
This tragic history is told from the vantage point of a survivor: a desk. The desk of the novel is the physical analogue to the ?Great House?? a school of study established around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, one that formulated the early part of the Talmud. Together, the Great House and the desk provide a framework, in the context of destruction, for ongoing intellectual survival. In the novel, a finalist for a National Book Award, she writes that the Messiah may be ?a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory.?
The effort to put in place a network of Hebrew-language charter schools has taken off in a big way in the past year ? thanks to the work of 35-year-old Sara Berman. Not only did Brooklyn?s Hebrew Language Academy Charter School gain much positive press as it completed its first year with 150 students (40 percent of them non-white), but other such charter schools have opened in California and New Jersey. Berman, who established the Brooklyn school, chairs the Hebrew Charter School Center, a project of the New York-based Areivim Philanthropic Group that was established to seed similar schools throughout the country.
Berman?s vision would perhaps not prove as productive if she were not the daughter of the major Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a former hedge fund manager. Steinhardt?s money has helped fund both the school and the center, and he has proven himself to be committed to the idea of using Hebrew as a way to sustain a secular Jewish identity. But by all accounts, it is Berman, a mother of six, and a former journalist and columnist on parenting for The New York Sun, who has infused the project with passion and a desire to find new forms of Jewish education for the future.
Leading a delegation of Muslim clergy through the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau is an unlikely job for a longtime conservative Republican and Orthodox Jew who served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in senior positions. But that was the mission Marshall Breger took upon himself last August.
Breger, now a law professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, dreamed up the firsthand education idea as a way to address the problem of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism among Muslims. The delegation of eight prominent American Muslim leaders he ultimately recruited included a few who had made problematic past statements about Jews, the Holocaust or other topics. But that was part of the idea. Rebuffed by Jewish organizations in his search for funding, Breger found a patron in Germany?s Konrad Adenauer Foundation and a partner in the small, New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Understanding.
The result: a statement signed by all eight Muslim participants decrying Holocaust denial, vowing to take action against the proliferation of anti-Semitic statements in the Arab world, and committing themselves to sending young Muslims on similar trips and to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. ?No Muslim in his right mind, female or male, should deny the Holocaust,? said Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a Washington-area mega-mosque.
Breger cited the trip as evidence that ?we can empower all voices in the Muslim world to speak the truth.?
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