In the year since the Forward published the first profiles of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, the road signs along the path of Jewish continuity have grown more menacing. The Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews codified what many feared: A shrinking number of Jews belong to synagogues, care about religious life and identify strongly with the larger Jewish community. The rabbinate as a whole continues to struggle, as synagogues close or merge and expectations of clergy grow too exaggerated to fulfill.
That’s why I love this project. It is a powerful, authentic antidote to the troubling signs, an affirmation that despite the worrying mega-trends, our spiritual leaders are connecting with Jews and strengthening communities across America.
This year we received hundreds of nominations from readers everywhere. After a careful process of reading, sifting, tabulating and fact-checking, we chose 28 men and women whose stories are most telling and compelling. These rabbis range in age from 28 to 81 years old, encompassing all major denominations and then some; they work in established synagogues and in new ones; in hospitals, universities and day schools, and one served in the military.
Forward staffers were prohibited from offering nominations, but two of our writers had their own inspiring story to tell. Their sidebars are included here, along with a profile written by one of last year’s most inspiring rabbis.
A few themes emerged from the mass of submissions: Readers seemed to be especially moved by rabbis who taught them about spirituality and meditation, who reached out to interfaith couples and led them through painful moments — the birth of a stillborn child, the death of a parent, the death of a marriage.
We see in these leaders not just men and women who care about Judaism — they care about Jews. It is a privilege to share their stories.
— Jane Eisner
These excerpts from nominating letters have been edited for style and length.