By Jane Eisner
The Forward 50 began 15 years ago, the brain-child of Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the English Forward, who went in search “of the men and women who are leading the American Jewish community into the 21st century.” Many of the names and faces on that original list were well-known stalwarts of the Jewish establishment, players in New York and Washington, powerful benefactors. They were representative of the kind of authority and leadership prevalent in 1994. The men wore suits and ties. The rabbis wore beards.
But examine that list carefully, and you will find intimations of change. A rabbi of the largest gay and lesbian synagogue is there. So is a right-leaning activist with grass-roots appeal.
In the decade and a half since, the dramatic shift in Jewish leadership mirrors larger trends in our society. Just as we no longer go one place for our news, we no longer look to only one powerful person in a position of authority for leadership. This year, in particular, we’ve seen some of the most established organizations questioned from the outside and challenged from within, while those who are creating and innovating seem to have history’s wind at their backs.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that only one person on the original Forward 50 list is included here today. And that person — filmmaker and philanthropist Steven Spielberg — hails not from Washington or New York, but from Hollywood, illustrative of the way that culture and entertainment are exercising a growing influence on American Jewish life.
Also telling about this year’s Forward 50 are the five people selected as the most influential and interesting: a businessman-turned-communal leader, a diplomat and best-selling author, a breakthrough female Orthodox leader and two iconoclastic filmmakers. None has ever been part of the Forward 50.
That may say something about our selection process, informed by the staff’s vast experience and assisted by welcome nominations from our readers. It says even more about the changing face of leadership. “There’s a shift in authority all over society. Those who once had great authority no longer do,” observes David M. Elcott, a professor in public service and leadership at New York University. “Authority is devolving, and that’s creating openings for the rise of exciting alternatives for leadership.”
One aspect of this process hasn’t changed: Each year, the Forward staff debates how to include those Jews whose impact in the past year has been dramatic — and damaging. We take no pleasure in highlighting misdeeds and embarrassments caused by fellow Jews, but they, too, are part of our story.
Consider this: Last year at this time, only those in the know had heard of Bernard Madoff; now his name is synonymous with the worst kind of greed and betrayal. Last year at this time, J. Ezra Merkin’s name was associated with his revered, philanthropic family; now he is being sued in connection with his alleged role in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Last year at this time, few might have guessed that Solomon Dwek, son of a prominent rabbi, was a cooperating witness in an FBI sting that nabbed New Jersey politicians and prominent members of his Syrian Jewish community.
We don’t have to look back 15 years for dramatic change. One year will do.
Veteran corporate executive Jerry Silverman took a job on September 30 that was once expected to become the most influential in American Jewish organizational life but wound up being merely the most thankless: president and CEO of the newly renamed Jewish Federations of North America. The organization, previously known as United Jewish Communities, was created in a 1999 merger of three central agencies that served the nation’s 157 local Jewish charity federations. Brutal five-year merger talks yielded a new body smaller than the sum of its parts, while the local charities got used to living without central guidance. Since the merger, the agency has seen three CEOs come and go while donations declined. Silverman, 51, spent a quarter-century in the garment trade, first at Levi Strauss, where he led the wildly successful Dockers marketing campaign, and then as a top executive at Stride Rite and Keds. In 2004, yearning for meaning, he moved to the non-profit field and took over the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which promotes summer camping. It’s since grown from a $1 million-a-year striver into a $22 million powerhouse. Silverman enters his new job amid near messianic expectations. He just might fulfill them.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is one of the more unusual figures on the Washington diplomatic scene. Renowned as a historian and best-selling author, he’s a political outsider with no formal diplomatic experience, yet he holds perhaps the most sensitive post in Israeli diplomacy. He’s a center-left political pragmatist representing the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Oren, 54, is a New Jersey native who moved to Israel as an adult and now represents his adopted country back in the land of his birth. Born Michael Borenstein, he received a master’s degree in international relations at Columbia University in 1978 and a doctorate from Princeton University in 1986. In between, he settled in Israel, Hebraicized his name, saw combat in the 1982 Lebanon War, and was arrested in the Soviet Union during a secret outreach mission to Soviet Jews. Familiar to American audiences during the 1990s as a journalist, Oren became a media star with the 2002 publication of his best-selling book, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.” His media savvy put Oren on the ambassadorial short list after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s February election victory. It didn’t hurt that Oren was a longtime fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative think tank funded by Netanyahu allies Sheldon Adelson and Ronald Lauder. Since his arrival in Washington in July, Oren has uncharacteristically landed in the middle of controversy. In August, the State Department reportedly summoned him for a chewing-out over Netanyahu’s settlement policies (Oren insisted it was just a friendly chat), and he famously snubbed an invitation to address J Street’s founding conference. The spotlight now follows him wherever he goes.
This was a year when the quiet, persistent attempts by Orthodox women to gain a more significant role in religious life took on a new urgency. No single event exemplifies this movement better than the conferral ceremony in March during which 32-year-old Sara Hurwitz took on the brand new title of Maharat in a ceremony led by her teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. In any non-Orthodox denomination, Hurwitz’s years of study and sense of calling would have earned her the title “rabbi,” but this modest, devout, South African-born mother wanted to remain an Orthodox Jew. Maharat is an acronym describing Hurwitz’s many roles — public leader, halachic authority, spiritual guide and Torah scholar. The title is a compromise she accepted in return for the opportunity to do a job she loves. But even a compromise has consequences. Already, Hurwitz has dramatically broadened the boundaries of acceptable public roles for women in an Orthodox setting and, with Weiss, is establishing a training program for other women who wish to become a Maharat. Weiss called his student “a full member of the clergy, with the distinct voice of a woman.” As her voice grows stronger, she is inspiring other Orthodox women to join her powerful, praiseworthy song.
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
They skewer most characters they depict but, after years of portraying disparaging Jews on screen, Joel, 54, (top photo) and Ethan Coen, 52, directed a homage to, and darkly comic caricature of, their Jewish-Minnesotan roots. “A Serious Man” begins with a fable acted out in Yiddish by Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman and legendary Yiddish actor, Fyvush Finkel. It continues by portraying, with tenderness, a farcical version of the suburban Jewish Minneapolis world in which the brothers grew up. The film was such an intense evocation of its milieu that audiences and critics who were neither Jewish nor Minnesotan, including the New Yorker, had little liking for it. Over the years, the brothers’ genre masterpieces from “Blood Simple” (1984) through “Fargo” (1996, two Academy Awards), “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000) to “No Country for Old Men” (2007, four Academy Awards), featured characters and communities, the vast preponderance of whom, Jewish or not, were scathingly drawn. While “A Serious Man” has not ended their desire to scathe, at least their *landsmen* were portrayed with some depth and sympathy, not exclusively skewered. Their next project is purported to be a movie version of Michael Chabon’s “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” for which they would take the subject of Jews on frozen plains once more to heart.
The international labor movement this year became the most visible battleground in the efforts to boycott Israel, as a number of trade unions around the world voted to back boycotts of Israel’s products and people. Stuart Appelbaum, 57, a graduate of Brandeis University and erstwhile Democratic activist, has led the effort to fight those boycotts. Appelbaum has long been among the most visible and outspoken Jewish labor leaders from his posts atop the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Jewish Labor Committee. (He also became one of the most visible gay labor leaders when he came out this spring.) This year, Appelbaum further asserted himself by getting almost every major American union leader to sign a letter in opposition to the boycotts. Appelbaum also worked with a few other international leaders to put together a new labor coalition to work not only against the boycotts, but also for a two-state solution in Israel. In the United States, Appelbaum’s work paid off when Richard Trumka, the new head of the AFL-CIO, appeared at JLC’S conference in late October to declare his support for Israel. Appelbaum’s organizations have not only stood up for Israel — they have been a steady presence in support of more rights for Palestinian workers.
Jeremy Ben-Ami knows marketing. Ben-Ami, J Street’s 47-year-old mastermind and executive director, identified an underserved niche (alienated doves hungry for inside-the-Beltway pull), distilled his group’s organizational identity into an easy-to-digest message (“pro-Israel, pro-peace”) and aggressively distinguished the fledgling lobby from its competition (“established pro-Israel groups” that, as he put it, “have enforced right-wing message discipline on Israel in Congress”). Though only a year-and-a-half old, J Street is already one of America’s most talked-about and controversial Jewish groups. Its fans — including the 1,500 people who attended its inaugural conference in October — see J Street as a long-overdue breath of fresh air on a stultifying Israel advocacy landscape, while its detractors vigorously dispute its pro-Israel bona fides. Friends and foes alike point to J Street’s willingness to go against the communal grain on issues like the Israeli military’s operation in Gaza (which it criticized, calling for an immediate cease-fire) and Iran sanctions (about which it has been bearish, pressing for more time for diplomacy). Ben-Ami’s strategy has built J Street a passionate base of support on the Jewish left. Now, he faces a bigger challenge: winning over a still-skeptical center.
In addition to his long career at the center of New York’s publishing world, Robert Bernstein was the founder in 1978 of the organization that later became Human Rights Watch. He has been regarded as one of America’s fiercest defenders of human rights and, in many ways, the father of the nation’s movement to hold countries and individuals accountable for violations of these basic tenets. So it came as a shock when, in an October 19 Op-Ed in the New York Times, Bernstein, 86, denounced the organization he had founded. Pointing to its censure of Israel’s actions during the Gaza conflict last winter, he charged that Human Rights Watch was unfairly scrutinizing Israel and aiding those who wish to turn the Jewish state into a pariah. Bernstein’s Op-Ed was the most high-profile critique of what has become known as “lawfare,” the attempt to use the language of human rights against Israel. To its detractors, it is the latest front in the war against the Jewish state. Bernstein elevated that debate to a higher plane, triggering a serious conversation about double standards, the rules of warfare, and the question of whether the principles of human rights are being misused for political gain.
The labor movement — with all its internal divisions — needed a conciliator this year, and Amy Dean did her best to fill the role. Armed with “A New Deal,” the call to labor activism she recently co-authored with David B. Reynolds, the 47-year-old Dean toured the country trying to call the labor movement together. She did so from a distinctly Jewish perspective. Like so many modern Jewish labor leaders, Dean got her start at one of the successors to the old Jewish garment unions — The International Ladies Garment Workers Union. As Dean rose up the ladder, she became known for building coalitions involving the Jewish world in which she was raised, the labor arena she had joined, and the broader community of social activists. Dean has kept active on all of these fronts, serving for the last few years as national co-chair of the Jewish Funds for Justice and helping to usher the agency through a major merger and period of growth. Just as in the labor world she has called for greater engagement with religious communities, in the Jewish world she has called for greater engagement with the values of social justice. She has worked for this herself in her hometown of Chicago, thinking globally and acting locally as always.
As Orthodox communities around the country slowly wake up to the realities of child sexual abuse, it’s not their spiritual and communal leaders who are leading the charge to protect the most vulnerable. Instead, a small but determined group of sexual abuse survivors have dragged the issue from the shadows into the light, often at great personal cost. Joel Engelman, 24, is one such survivor, a reliably levelheaded and soft-spoken presence at conferences, protests, and rallies, where emotions inevitably run high. A founding member of the advocacy group Survivors for Justice, Engelman went public with his story after suing his former yeshiva, the Satmar-run United Talmudical Academy in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and former principal Rabbi Avrohom Reichman, who continues to teach despite facing several abuse allegations. Engelman is one of many survivors who have made a difference by speaking out publicly. They’re battling not only the stigma of sexual abuse, but also an entrenched power system that all too often spends more time worrying about the reputations of accused molesters than about their responsibility to protect children.
It has since been called the most serious incident of judicial corruption in the nation’s history. But when Marsha Levick, 58, and her colleagues from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia first began probing the harsh sentences imposed on young people after lightning-fast hearings in the courtrooms of Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, they had no idea what they would uncover. They knew only that children were being sent away, sometimes in shackles, for first-time crimes as minor as pushing a classmate into a school locker. Levick and other JLC lawyers eventually built a comprehensive case, alleging that for years, Judges Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. and Michael T. Conahan were sending the youngsters, who often had no legal representation, to private jails whose owner had paid the pair a total of $2.6 million in bribes. The JLC — founded in 1975 by Levick, executive director Robert Schwartz, and two other Temple Law School classmates — pursued justice for the juveniles involved, fighting against the vast political bureaucracy of Pennsylvania’s legal system, and finally won. Ciavarella and Conahan are awaiting trial on a 48-count racketeering indictment. Meanwhile, on October 30, the state’s Supreme Court dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions, saying that none of the young offenders had received a fair hearing. “This is exactly the relief these kids needed,” Levick said afterward. And the relief they deserved.
Ruth Messinger, 69, the indefatigable president of the American Jewish World Service, distinguished herself this year as one of the leading Jewish voices on the national stage fighting against poverty and for human rights. She simply never gives up. In March, when the Obama administration called upon advocates to advise the new special envoy to Sudan, Messinger — an early and consistent foe of the genocide in Darfur — was among them. In July, when the administration appointed a Task Force on Global Poverty and Development, Messinger was on the panel. But Messinger’s work goes well beyond the halls of power. She is often found in the slums of India or with HIV/AIDS patients in Peru. And she’s willing to speak truth to power, as she did in the commencement address this year to graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “This is a time when we need to determine what we stand for, who we really are,” she said. “We must be able to help people of all ages answer the question: ‘Why be Jewish?’ To resonate, the answer must be more than tribal identity. You must encourage people to acknowledge that our world is broken and that being Jewish in the world today means working to fix it.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, spending months in meditation, Forward columnist Jay Michaelson (The Polymath) has had a breakout year on three fronts. His book “Everything is God” is the first serious theological attempt to codify what is — or could be — Jewish about the broader Jewish spiritual movement often referred to as JuBu. An article that Michaelson, 38, wrote articulating his personal struggle between love and disaffection for Israel, “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel,” touched a deep nerve in both the American Jewish and Anglo-Israeli psyches. And Nehirim, the Jewish spiritual GLBT movement he founded in 2004, has become one of the most important venues for gay Jews to find both community and representation on East and West coasts.
Irving Moskowitz has been called “the patron saint of the East Jerusalem settler movement” for buying up and developing properties for Jewish settlement there. In July, when Moskowitz, a Florida-based physician-turned-casino tycoon, got the go-ahead to build an apartment complex in a Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem, he helped expose fault lines between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. His plan to develop the site drew objections from the U.S. State Department, which called on Israel to halt construction. For now, the project is moving forward, with Israel insisting that Jewish development anywhere in Jerusalem not be curtailed. Moskowitz, 81, is a powerful and polarizing figure, not just in the world of Jerusalem real estate, but also on the philanthropy scene: He and his wife are at the helm of a charitable foundation that funds Jewish education, right-leaning Israel advocacy groups and disaster relief. They also award the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism. In 2009, all three of the winners were settler leaders.
It was a big year for Chicago community organizers. In addition to President Obama, Jane Ramsey, head of the Windy City’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, solidified her position as Chicago’s Jewish social activist par excellence. In almost every social and economic justice issue that came up in Chicago — homelessness, unemployment, community reinvestment, racism, antisemitism — Ramsey was there, providing Jewish leadership. During the Gaza conflict, Ramsey, 59, helped bring together Muslim and Jewish leaders to engage in dialogue. During Chicago’s ill-fated bid for the Olympics, Ramsey was calling for the city to be forthright about how hosting the Games could affect ordinary citizens. In her three decades at the JCUA, Ramsey has been a consistent voice calling for immigration reform. This spring, she took her activism to a new level after the immigration raid at Agriprocessors’ kosher meat plant in Iowa. Ramsey was instrumental in buiding a coalition of Jewish organizations in the Progress by Pesach campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. The campaign resulted in a meeting at the White House, though no immigration reform has emerged yet. Washington, though, is not the regular playing field for Ramsey’s ambitions — she is more at home in the Chicago housing projects and union halls where she has made such a difference.
Steve Rosen was under indictment in February 2009 on charges of receiving national security information and giving it to unauthorized persons. But the legal troubles didn’t stop Rosen, a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer, from speaking out about national intelligence issues. In a February 19 blog post, Rosen sounded the alarm over the selection of former diplomat Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council: “Freeman is a strident critic of Israel, and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time the state of Israel was born,” he wrote. Rosen’s post began an avalanche of criticism of Freeman, who ultimately withdrew from consideration for the job. Two months later, prosecutors dropped charges against Rosen and fellow former AIPAC staffer, Keith Weissman. The move didn’t come a moment too soon for the pair’s defenders, who felt the feds were singling them out for the sort of information-sharing that’s common practice in Washington policy circles. However, the affair ended Rosen’s decades-long career at AIPAC, which, as foreign policy issues director, he had helped fashion into a lobbying powerhouse. Yet Rosen, 67, got right back into the foreign-policy game. Last year, while still under indictment, he found a new professional perch at the hawkish Middle East Forum, where Rosen has established himself as an influential, right-leaning voice on Mideast policy.
Leonard Abess, Jr.
In a year when the reckless, greedy face of finance dominated the headlines, Leonard Abess Jr. made news of a different sort. The Miami banker — already a well-known philanthropist, with his name linked to gifts to a Jewish federation, a major university and a medical center — took the unusual step of sharing his wealth directly with his employees. After selling a majority stake in his bank, City National Bancshares Inc., Abess distributed $60 million of the proceeds among his 471 current and former tellers, bookkeepers, clerks, and executives. Even more impressive was the way he did it: with no publicity, without even appearing at the bank when letters were distributed to his surprised, grateful staff. For his generosity, Abess, 60, was seated with First Lady Michelle Obama when President Obama delivered his State of the Union address. The president quoted Abess’s explanation for his good deed: “I didn’t feel right getting the money myself.” If only more so-called business leaders shared that civic impulse.
The rabbi who fared well but did not win the vote for Jewish Community Hero has had an important year, anyway. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, 40, is director of the annual Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, Calif., which drew a crowd of 1,000 to its fifth iteration last spring. “Jewlicious is Woodstock, Jewish Summer Camp, Mt. Sinai and Burning Man rolled into three non-stop days,” Bookstein writes. Not quite, but the annual sleepover has grown into a can’t-miss for Jewish pop stars such as Matisyahu and Jewish students of all denominations. This year, Bookstein left his post as rabbi of Cal State’s Long Beach Hillel to lead a new effort, merging the Jewlicious Festival organization with JconnectLA, a social program for Southern California’s post-collegiate Jews. Meanwhile, he is on his way to filling a cultural niche held by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach: the savvy, accessible, and self-consciously kitschy Orthodox icon. Bookstein donned fake peyes to perform alongside the character puppet made famous by “The Tonight Show” — Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog — at this year’s Chabad Telethon, and his search to replace a busted sedan was covered on Vanity Fair’s Web site. “If we are supposed to honor Torah scholars,” he told the site’s columnist, “then we should honor them with nice wheels, right?”
This has been a banner year for Shifra Bronznick, 55, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, which promotes the advancement of women in the Jewish workforce and creation of policies that facilitate work-life balance. This fall, Bronznick — a widely respected leader in not-for-profit organizational consulting — co-authored “Better Work, Better Life: Practices and Policies in Jewish Organizations.” The report highlights the disconnect between Jewish leaders’ oft-stated commitment to Jewish continuity and their unwillingness to implement family-friendly policies at the organizations they run. For example, only 35% of Jewish workplaces have formal policies guaranteeing access to paid maternity leave; fewer still have formal policies allowing for paid paternity leave. Bronznick’s report marks the first stage of AWP’s Better Work Life Campaign, which aims “to improve work-life policies at 100 Jewish organizations by the end of 2010.” AWP is offering consulting services to organizations working toward the campaign’s goal. Bronznick, a senior fellow at the NYU Research Center for Leadership in Action, practices what she preaches: She balances a busy work schedule with life as the mother of a 15-year-olddaughter and a 12-year-old son.
In 2000, Skokie, Ill., was home to only a rudimentary Holocaust museum founded in response to the infamously threatened 1981 neo-Nazi march. A group of local survivors who ran the museum wanted to leave their kids something better. By Yom HaShoah 2009, that storefront museum had been replaced by the large, state-of-the-art Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. That this happened quickly and effectively — with the help of such internationally acclaimed professionals as architect Stanley Tigerman, conceptual developers Michael Berenbaum and Yitzchak Mais, and designer David Layman — is testimony to the selfless work by that same group of survivors. Headed originally by Lisa Derman, the group included Fritzie Fritzshall and Aaron Elster, as well as Sam Harris, who ferried the museum project to completion after Derman passed away. Philanthropist J.B. Pritzker provided logistical and financial backing for the project, and Richard Hirschhaut was recruited to serve as executive director. An estimated 10,000 people were on hand on April 19, when the 73-year-old Harris, president of the $45 million museum, declared the building open.
J. Shawn Landres
J. Shawn Landres, 37, emerged this year as an essential thinker in explaining the new Jewish spirituality and culture to the Jewish establishment. If the current crop of post-denominational Jewish spiritual groups and independent Jewish organizations plays a leading role in Jewish life in the next decade, it will be largely due to the efforts of Landres, who articulates the importance of Jewish innovation to donors and foundations. He is a primary evangelist of innovation, whether it is in the form of an independent *minyanim*, an activist group or a budding cultural institutions. With Joshua Avedon, he runs Jumpstart, a “thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation,” that this year launched a partnership with Community Partners, a Southern California-based non-profit incubator, to actively support innovative new Jewish non-profits.
When Jehuda Reinharz, the longtime president of Brandeis University, recommended in January that the school close its Rose Art Museum and sell off its permanent collection, worth an estimated $350 million, he came under intense criticism — probably more than at any other time in his nearly 16-year tenure. The move was seen as a rash attempt to plug a financial hole. When he then announced his retirement at the end of September, the two events were seen as connected, although they were not. And in many ways the Rose affair obscured what has been a successful career as head of the Jewish university. Reinharz, 65, has greatly improved the national and international reputation of Brandeis — investing in the physical redevelopment of the campus, increasing the number of endowed chairs for faculty and opening 10 new research centers and institutes, and diversifying the student body as well as greatly enlarging opportunities for financial aid. Reinharz’s future plans remain uncertain, although he hinted at them in a letter he sent to the faculty upon his resignation: “I expect to be the president of a significant foundation, where I can address issues facing the Jewish community at the national and international level.”
What’s a nice Jewish boy from Harvard doing at a slaughterhouse in rural Pennsylvania? That question has been asked by many in the kosher food industry over the past few years as Greg Rosenbaum, 57, took the reins of the storied kosher poultry firm Empire, through his private equity firm, Palisades. Empire was on the verge of bankruptcy when Rosenbaum took the helm as Empire’s CEO, and while he does not even keep kosher in his suburban Maryland home, he has used his experience in business to master the often cloistered world of the kosher food industry. Rosenbaum has led Empire’s expansion, making it the industry leader and default supplier of kosher poultry for many Jewish homes in America. Empire’s rise has come as other kosher companies have struggled under a cloud of ethical concerns — most notably, the now-bankrupt Iowa company, Agriprocessors. Rosenbaum has won plaudits from his workers and the Jewish Labor Committee for his efforts to create a company that is looking out for more than its bottom line.
Michael Steinhardt is one of the few Jewish philanthropists interested in discovering new paradigms. Rather than simply throwing his millions at constructing buildings and endowing Jewish centers — though he does plenty of that — the 68-year-old Steinhardt is interested in creating programs. Specifically, he has been focused on supporting that vague and controversial idea: Jewish continuity. It’s why he’s been such a consistent financial backer of Taglit-Birthright Israel. In this past year, two more of his big experiments have finally seen the light of day. The Hebrew Language Academy, a publicly funded charter school in southern Brooklyn, opened in September with 150 kindergartners and first-graders. It is the first expression of Steinhardt’s vision of a network of charter schools teaching the Hebrew language but not the Jewish religion. He has also heavily funded Birthright Israel NEXT, a program meant to keep connections with the tens of thousands of alumni of the subsidized Israel trips and make sure they remain Jewishly involved. Both programs have their critics. The school walks the thin line of the church-state divide and, as the Forward revealed recently, Birthright Israel NEXT’S programming in New York is run by an Orthodox kiruv organization that has turned off some of its participants with its heavy focus on religious education.
The chilly relationship between American Jewry’s liberal mainstream and its traditionalist Orthodox wing could be headed for a welcome thaw. The reason: David Zwiebel, 57, newly appointed executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, the powerful social-service and advocacy agency that represents Orthodoxy’s black-garbed right flank. A committee had run the organization since the 1998 death of its iron-willed longtime president, Moshe Sherer. Zwiebel inherits a full plate of crises: fallout from business and child-molestation scandals, deep rifts with other Jewish denominations and a private school system swamped by an unending baby boom. The soft-spoken Zwiebel, a constitutional lawyer and ordained rabbi, has been handling crises for two decades as Agudath Israel’s general counsel and government affairs director. Since becoming chief in January, he’s moved swiftly to set a new tone. In September, he convened the first in a series of seminars on legal compliance procedures for school and charity administrators. In October, his staff reached a compromise with Congress that allowed the movement to drop its long-standing opposition to gay rights legislation, clearing the way for passage of a historic hate-crimes bill. Perhaps most telling, he attended and mingled with other agency heads, including liberal activists and Reform rabbis, at a reception for Jerry Silverman, the new chief of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Roger Cohen has written a new chapter in the annals of acrimony between The New York Times and the Jewish community. For a February column, Cohen journeyed to Iran and reported at face value the claims by members of the country’s beleaguered Jewish minority that life isn’t half-bad in the Islamic Republic. “I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” the veteran foreign correspondent added for good measure. Moreover, he said, “Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades” can be understood as “a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force.” Furious critics compared Cohen to fellow British-born Timesman Walter Duranty, who infamously played down the depravities of Stalin’s Soviet Union during the 1930s. Rather than back down, Cohen amplified his points in a series of columns and congratulated himself for tackling a Middle East debate “taboo.” It took Iran’s farcical presidential election and the ensuing crackdown to elicit a partial mea culpa: “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness,” Cohen wrote. And in the days that followed, Cohen distinguished himself with risky reportage from the bloodied streets of Tehran. Since then, however, the 54-year-old pundit has resumed his role as a lightning rod in the charged debates over Iran and Israel.
This year, Dara Horn’s place in the list of important contemporary Jewish and American novelists was cemented by her third novel, “All Other Nights,” a tale about the Jewish festival of liberation that took place during the Civil War. Horn, 32, has a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard, but her accolades have been for her novels, not for her scholarly achievements. “In the Image” received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, and “The World To Come” won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the 2007 Harold U. Ribalow Prize and was chosen as one of the Best Books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Revealing the vital Jewish involvement during a transformative time in American history, “All Other Nights” has made a larger claim for the wider relevance of Jewish American experience to the American experiment than Horn’s previous books had made. As with “The World To Come,” her new book was selected as an Editors Choice by The New York Times Book Review.
This year Adam Kirsch, 33, has cemented his position as this century’s first pre-eminent Jewish man of letters. A widely admired poet and essayist, his mind is exercised both by Jewish particularity and the broader world of culture. Both are evident in, for example, his biography of Benjamin Disraeli or when reminding readers of the New York Times that Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum. He wrote the weekly column “The Reader” on Jewish topics for Nextbook and is regular writer for its reincarnation: Tablet Magazine. When the New York Sun, for which he was the book critic, ceased publishing in September 2008, his writing appeared more frequently in what earlier had been occasional venues: the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Slate and The New Republic — where he had been the assistant literary editor while still in his 20s and is now a senior editor. Yale professor Langdon Hammer — writing in The New York Times — praised the Harvard-educated Kirsch as a poet-critic akin to a previous “generation of poets who won positions in American colleges as literary critics” and even traced a lineage back to T.S. Eliot.
A rising literary star, Sana Krasikov, 30, took home the Jewish Book Council’s 2009 Sami Rohr Prize, a prestigious $100,000 award that recognizes an emerging writer of Jewish-themed literature. Krasikov, a Ukraine-born, Georgia-reared émigré, received the award on the heels of the publication of her critically acclaimed short story collection, “One More Year.” The book’s stories depict the traumatic transitions faced by Russian-speaking immigrants to America, and the author noted in a recent interview with the Forward that she is “drawn to what happens to people in the tumult of socioeconomic change of immigration.” A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose early work appeared in the pages of the Forward, Krasikov is at work on her first novel. She has received an O. Henry Award and was named one of the five most promising writers under 35 by the National Book Foundation.
Ari Roth, the ebullient playwright and director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., took a risk in the aftermath of January’s Israeli military incursion into Gaza: In March, he staged a reading of Caryl Churchill’s Palestinian protest play, “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” at Washington’s Jewish Community Center. After 12 years at Theater J, during which time he consolidated and expanded its quality, reach and repertoire, Roth, 48, is still willing to go out on a limb. Not only did he stage the Churchill play this year — garnering protests — but he had previously staged Motti Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah,” about the Israeli settlements, and Hillel Mittelpunkt’s “The Accident,” about Israel’s hypocritical intelligentsia. “I don’t program to offend the Jewish community, but to be in dialogue on issues that are extremely important,” Roth said.
Lenore Skenazy and Ayelet Waldman
Forget Sophie Portnoy, Philip Roth’s famous caricature of an overbearing Jewish mother. This was the year that the Jewish mother got a makeover. And that makeover is due, in no small part, to the work of columnist Lenore Skenazy and novelist Ayelet Waldman. In 2009, each woman authored a book that urged so-called “helicopter” moms and dads to embrace a more relaxed form of parenting. In April, Skenazy came out with “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry”, based on her controversial 2008 New York Sun column about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself. And in May, Waldman published “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace” — four years after she had stirred debate with her New York Times essay declaring that she loves her husband (Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon) more than she loves her children. Skenazy, 49, and Waldman, 44, did more than publish provocative books; they launched a backlash against overbearing, anxiety-ridden parenthood. “The pendulum is swinging the other way just a little,” Waldman said earlier this year. “It’s just started, so let’s not get too excited.”
One of the most successful moviemakers of all time, Steven Spielberg received an award this year that didn’t involve a statuette. The National Constitution Center presented its top honor, the Liberty Medal, to the three-time Oscar winner for his commitment, onscreen and off, to promoting the core constitutional values of freedom and justice. The medal recognized Spielberg’s work on behalf of his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which the director established in 1994, following the release of his Holocaust epic, “Schindler’s List.” Since the foundation set out to document on camera the oral histories of survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust, it has created the largest repository of its kind: 105,000 hours of testimonies in 32 languages. Spielberg’s foundation is also planning to chronicle other genocides, and is now collecting testimonies from survivors and witnesses to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The Constitution Center said that Spielberg, 62, planned to donate the Liberty Medal’s $100,000 cash prize to the foundation.
David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel
David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, two of President Obama’s closest and most influential advisers, were accused by protesters in Israel and by right-wing bloggers of being “self-hating Jews.” News reports said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the men the same way, but Netanyahu denied it. Over the summer, Chief of Staff Emanuel and Senior Adviser Axelrod took much of the heat directed at Obama from the Israeli government and its supporters over what they saw as unfair pressure on Netanyahu. Publicly, Emanuel, 50, and Axelrod, 54, stayed away from the controversy over settlements and left the debate to the administration’s foreign policy staff. Privately, Emanuel kept an open door to Jewish leaders who were trying to convey their messages to the White House. Emanuel is not only the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, but also a leading force in domestic policy decisions. Despite his non-stop schedule, Emanuel — whose extensive use of foul language has become legendary — is seen frequently in synagogue and is close to local rabbis. Axelrod was involved in his Chicago Jewish community before moving to Washington. On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, Axelrod thanked the Jewish community for its support, saying he was kvelling.
As the nuclear standoff with Iran took center stage in 2009, Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, became a critical player in efforts to block Tehran’s drive toward nuclear weapons. Berman, who became chairman in 2008, was faced with a challenge on the issue of sanctions against Iran: how to find a middle ground between the administration’s call for congressional restraint, which would allow diplomacy to take its course, and the pro-Israel activists in the Jewish community, who pushed to move the legislation forward. By initially putting the bill on hold and later using it to set a deadline for the administration’s diplomatic outreach effort, Berman managed to keep both sides satisfied. The California congressman, 68, is viewed as one of Israel’s key supporters on Capitol Hill.
With Senator Arlen Specter crossing over the line to the Democratic Party, and Norm Coleman losing the Minnesota senatorial race, Rep. Eric Cantor has become the only remaining Jewish Republican in Congress. But even as Jewish Republican representation declined this year, Cantor’s political career soared. At 46, the five-term Virginia congressman was elected unanimously to be minority whip, making him the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. As such, Cantor was challenged by Democrats to speak out against conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh for comparing President Obama to Hitler. Cantor declined. He did lead the Republican opposition to the administration’s economic stimulus plan, and he has taken it upon himself to reshape the Republican message in light of surveys showing a steady drop in support for the party. Cantor’s vision calls for a focus on small businesses and a free-market economy instead of the anti-Obama message that has taken over current Republican discourse. Succeeding in this mission could put Cantor one step closer to a possible presidential bid in 2012.
Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank is often alone among congressional lawmakers in voicing what much of the country’s left is supporting — whether it’s a call for cuts in military spending, the support of LGBT rights or the decriminalization of marijuana. Some would argue that his moxie and trademark outspokenness are what prompted his constituents to send him to Congress for the past 28 years. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank, 69, was a key player this year in shaping the Wall Street bailout. But it wasn’t only his maneuvering among lawmakers that was notable. He also took a brief star turn when a series of town hall meetings over health care reform devolved into anger. At an August meeting, Frank turned his famous temper on a popular misconception that was in desperate need of debunking — the comparison of health care reform to Nazi policy. Lyndon LaRouche followers showed up at the meeting sporting posters of President Obama with a Hitler mustache, and one of them referred to Obama’s policy as a “Nazi policy.” Frank responded to her by asking, “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” He went on to say that continuing the conversation would be like “arguing with a dining room table.” A video clip of the exchange circulated widely on the Web, sucking the wind out of the wild rhetoric surrounding the health care protests.
It took Al Franken eight months of a ballot recount and legal wrangling before winning Minnesota’s “Jewish seat” in the Senate, a seat that has been held for the past three decades by members of the tribe. For a comedian-turned-politician, it was worth the wait. In July, Franken became not only the 13th Jew in today’s Senate, but also — more notably — the Democrats’ 60th member, giving the party its super-majority. Best known for his years on “Saturday Night Live,” Franken shifted slowly toward politics, emerging first as the author of a best-selling anti-Conservative indictment, then as a liberal talk-radio host and finally as a candidate. When he took on Jewish Republican Senator Norm Coleman in the Minnesota race, Franken said: “I don’t think Minnesota is ready for a gentile in this seat.” As a member of the Senate, Franken, 58, has yet to make his mark. He is frequently a guest at events organized by Jewish organizations, and particpants at those events have praised his seriousness and depth, while registering a singular complaint: Franken is no longer funny.
The close friendship between Susan Sher and Michelle Obama began in the 1990s, when the two women worked for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. It was Sher who tried to recruit Obama to City Hall. Obama returned the favor years later, when she called on Sher to join her at the White House. Sher, 61, came on board as an associate counsel to President Obama, and in June became the first lady’s chief of staff. Along with Danielle Borrin, Sher serves as the White House liaison to the Jewish community. In practical terms, that makes her the community’s point person inside the White House. Jewish activists have praised Sher and the Obama administration for their open-door policy. But there is one door that Sher had difficulty opening: When her husband, Neil, brought a plate of macaroons to the White House for its first-ever Passover Seder, it took help from the Oval Office to get the cookies past the Secret Service.
At age 79, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic side of the aisle, depriving Jewish Republicans of their sole representative in the Senate. Specter was always known as a moderate Republican, but his vocal criticism of the Bush administration on constitutional issues eventually cost him the support of his Pennsylvania constituency. Facing a tough primary race against a conservative challenger, Specter crossed party lines in April, arguing that the GOP had shifted too far to the right. Finding a new political home when he was also preparing for a tough 2010 race has not been easy. The veteran senator lost his seniority rights when moving to the Democratic side and he is still struggling to find his place among his new colleagues. Specter, who has been fighting cancer for three years, has worked in the Senate to promote groundbreaking legislation that would provide compensation for organ donors. A staunch supporter of Israel and a regular visitor to Damascus, he also stands out as one of the few believers in the chance for peace between Israel and Syria.
As founder and producer of G-dcast.com, an animated online series that tells the story of the Torah, 36-year-old Sarah Lefton is overhauling Jewish literacy. In its inaugural season, the series told the story of the Torah through 55 four-minute episodes, each written and narrated by celebrities and scholars. The free series is designed to expand the Jewish literacy of teenagers and adults who have no formal Jewish education. Lefton burst onto the scene with her “Yo Semite” T-shirts and other sassy, Jewish-flavored fashions from her T-shirt company, the Jewish Fashion Conspiracy. She and her team spent three years scraping together enough money to get the G-dcast.com site up and running. Now, as the site is reaching people in 95 countries, Lefton plans to stretch her shoestring budget to produce episodes subtitled in Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew, and to create holiday specials — including one just in time for Hanukkah.
Alysa Stanton broke new ground this year when she became mainstream Judaism’s first black female rabbi. Ordained in June, she leads the 60-family Congregation Bayt Shalom in the one-synagogue town of Greenville, N.C. The 46-year-old former psychotherapist and single mother of an adopted daughter converted to Judaism in the late 1980s. Soon after, she began her rabbinical studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Stanton faced no small measure of opposition in her journey toward becoming a rabbi, including racist discrimination here and in Israel and even death threats on the eve of her ordination. Even so, Stanton remains firm in her belief that a rabbi’s life is her true path. Her spirit, courage, and fierce love of Judaism give her every chance to succeed in her chosen work.
In July, Rabbi Steven Wernick took the helm of an institution in trouble. The new executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Wernick, 42, arrived at a time of financial troubles and growing disenchantment among Conservative congregations. The organization’s revenue dropped 12% this past year, and some congregations have stopped paying dues. To turn things around, in September he instituted a broad restructuring of the organization that included deep cuts in staff, a consolidation of its services, and a reduction in its board of directors from 180 to 75 members. Even more critically, he has spoken openly — and, some in his movement would say, with reckless candor — about the crisis of conscience facing Conservative Jewish leaders. As Wernick said last summer, “I think that part of the problem of the contemporary synagogue is that we’ve over-institutionalized them and we’ve over-professionalized them. As such, we’ve turned congregants into audience members and passive participants, as opposed to active members of a community who really support each other.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is no stranger to boos. But that’s because the president of the Union for Reform Judaism isn’t content with preaching to the choir. A decade ago, Yoffie was booed briefly when he argued for “legal guarantees” for gay couples in an address at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. In October, Yoffie garnered a few more boos, this time from Jewish doves at J Street’s national conference as he assailed the U.N. inquiry into the Gaza conflict. “Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself,” Yoffie said to the audible disagreement of some of the assembled. (Yoffie knew he would be facing a tough crowd; writing in the Forward 10 months before, he had labeled “morally deficient” and “appallingly naïve” a J Street statement criticizing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.) But Yoffie also directed his fire at targets more agreeable to his audience, criticizing Jewish groups that “have their heads in the sand” when it comes to recognizing the urgency of achieving a two-state solution. Whether scolding doves or hawks or skewering Israeli leaders or American Jewry’s *machers*, the 62-year-old Yoffie doesn’t pull his punches. In the process, he has given voice to an American-Jewish middle that is simultaneously critical of the West Bank settlement movement and fiercely protective of Israel.
Bernard Madoff leapt this past year from relative obscurity to prominence: He’s probably the most hated landsman in American Jewish history. Meyer Lansky had his gang; the Rosenbergs had their comrades and supporters. Madoff, 71, has only his fellow inmates in the North Carolina federal prison where he’ll spend the rest of his life. Madoff, who founded his own Wall Street investment firm in 1960, pleaded guilty in March to operating what has been called the largest financial scam in history. He admitted that he had spent years running a gigantic Ponzi scheme, taking cash from new clients to pay off earlier ones without ever investing their money. As a result, thousands of ordinary people lost their life savings. “I knew what I was doing was wrong, indeed criminal,” he said in his plea allocution. Madoff contended that he began his scam in 1991 and acted alone. However, others — including his brother, Peter; his sons, Mark and Andrew; and a niece, Shana — are suspected of involvement. Also suspected: hedge-fund manager J. Ezra Merkin, a prominent Jewish philanthropist who had associated with Madoff since the early 1990s. Neither Merkin nor Madoff family members have been charged, and all have denied any wrongdoing. Madoff’s scheme collapsed late in 2008, just months after the financial crisis hit and new clients dried up. It is estimated that clients lost a staggering $65 billion (at least $45 billion of it in paper losses from fake profits). Among the hardest-hit were Jewish institutions he had worked with, including Yeshiva University and Hadassah. Several private foundations collapsed altogether, in turn wreaking havoc among the charities they supported. The only people left with kind thoughts of Madoff were the late-night comics who have turned his name into a perpetual punch line.
J. Ezra Merkin
When the Madoff scandal broke last December, questions arose about the actions of J. Ezra Merkin, scion of a family of major Modern Orthodox philanthropists, chairman of GMAC, and money manager to a slew of prominent Jews and Jewish institutions. Investors in his funds claimed to have had no idea that Merkin, 55, had entrusted $2.4 billion of their money to Bernard Madoff. This year, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, New York University and New York Law School are among those who are suing Merkin for his alleged role in funneling money to Madoff. They allege that Merkin got rich off investment fees while feeding billions of dollars from non-profit endowments and individual fortunes into Madoff’s billowing Ponzi scheme. Since the scandal broke, Merkin has lost control of his hedge funds, stepped down as chairman of GMAC, resigned as president of the prestigious Fifth Avenue Synagogue, and sold off his extensive collection of paintings by the artist Mark Rothko. He also resigned his seat on the board of directors at Yeshiva University, where the influential Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once held a chair sponsored by Merkin’s father, Hermann. But some question who is truly at fault here — Merkin or the credulous investors who didn’t question their steady returns. And what about the Ramaz School and Y.U., which saw no conflict of interest in allowing Merkin to serve on their boards and, in Y.U.’s case, on its investment committees, while allowing him to “manage” — and earn fees on — millions of dollars worth of their donated income? As the legal process unfolds, Merkin’s apparent role as a conduit between Madoff and Jewish institutions is likely to take center stage.
No one could have predicted Solomon Dwek’s spectacular second act. Dwek, the son of a prominent Syrian rabbi, was disgraced in 2006 after bouncing a check for $25 million. He was charged with bank fraud and forced into bankruptcy after his real-estate business went bust. His failure as a real-estate mogul led directly to a new career, as a cooperating witness in a sprawling FBI sting. This summer, Dwek emerged as the informant whose secretly recorded conversations led to the arrest of 44 prominent rabbis and politicians in New Jersey and Brooklyn on charges ranging from corruption to money laundering to organ trafficking. Pages of criminal complaints chronicle the exploits of “the CW,” or cooperating witness, reportedly Dwek, as he allegedly brokered payoffs and kickbacks. He is said to have been given an Apple Jacks cereal box filled with $97,000 as part of a money-laundering scheme. Those charged in the investigation include three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen and five rabbis. The arrests reshaped New Jersey politics, and exposed Dwek’s insular Syrian Jewish community to unwanted public scrutiny. Many Syrian Jews reacted angrily, denouncing Dwek for allegedly informing on his own people. Dwek, 36, has kept an understandably low profile since the arrests, but his work will keep federal investigators and prosecutors busy for years to come.
To the world at large, Jason Lezak is best known for setting a world record in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympics, winning gold for his team. But for those who follow the small world of Jewish professional sports, the 34-year-old power sprinter may be better known for turning down the opportunity to swim in the July 2009 international FINA swimming championships in Rome so he could compete instead at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Lezak took home four medals from the Maccabiah Games, two for individual events and two for relays. He set a new Maccabiah record in the 100-meter freestyle race. Following in the footsteps of another Jewish Olympic swimmer, Mark Spitz, Lezak was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Between 1910 and 1940, one third of all boxers in America were Jewish, including such champions as Benny Leonard, Max Baer and Barney Ross. But following World War II, the concept of Jewish boxing came to seem more and more like a contradiction in terms. Now, however, things have come full circle with the recent rise of Jewish boxers from the former Soviet Union — especially Dmitriy Salita, 27, born in Ukraine, and Yuri Foreman, born in Belarus. Salita, who moved to Brooklyn at age 9 and now fights under the American flag, is a practicing Orthodox Jew who refuses to fight on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. He has amassed a record of 30-0-1. In the tradition of the American-Jewish boxers of the early 20th century, Salita fights with a Star of David on his shorts and is even known as the “Star of David” himself. Although both fighters have downplayed the religious tensions, Salita’s identity will take on special significance in December, when he faces World Boxing Association Light Welterweight Champion Amir Khan, a Muslim, in a title match that will be held in Newcastle, England.