The publication this year of the Forward 50 is happening a little differently. We are rolling out videos of the Top 5, the American Jews who we think top our list of those who have impacted the news most significantly in the past year. Count down with us through Monday as we profile the new faces of Jewish power.
Whether organizing a massive event to celebrate the Talmud or tussling with the New York City health department, Rabbi David Zwiebel this year adroitly lifted the public profile and perhaps the political clout of the devoutly Orthodox Jews he represents. Zwiebel, now 59, left a high-flying career at a powerhouse New York law firm 30 years ago because, he says, his children never saw him except on Shabbat, and went to work for Agudath Israel of America, rising through the ranks to become executive vice president. His position requires those legal skills and then some, as he must mediate between the rabbinic group that makes Agudah policy and the many public stakeholders who sometimes oppose it.
This year alone, Agudah’s position on rabbinic reporting of alleged child sexual abuse put Zwiebel into direct conflict with Brooklyn’s district attorney. And its decision to oppose the city health department on requiring informed consent for metzitzah b’peh, a controversial procedure performed during circumcision, earned the wrath of, among others, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But throughout, Zwiebel has patiently and consistently worked to educate the public about the concerns, values and rituals that undergird ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Those values were on display when 90,000 people filled a New Jersey stadium on a rainy night in August to celebrate the culmination of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of Talmud study. A week later, meeting with a Forward editor, Zwiebel was still elated at the size and passion of the crowd. He had a right to be.