In the burgeoning world of unconventional young congregations, Sharon Brous, 32, has taken on an unusual role, doubling as a youthful firecracker, storming the barricades, and a grand dame, dispensing wisdom. Brous began her own Los Angeles religious community, IKAR, only three years ago, but it has swiftly become one of the largest of its kind, drawing more people on Friday nights than almost any traditional synagogue in the city. The lure is Brous’s ability to make Judaism accessible — with an emphasis on social activism — while keeping the work tied to serious Jewish text and ritual. No Kabbalah Centre here. As IKAR has boomed, Brous has become a model and a mentor for many other religious innovators. She took on several leadership positions in the newly formed Synagogue 3000 network, which serves as a gathering point for new Jewish communities around the country. Brous was trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, but her unwillingness to follow institutional models is one of the things keeping her fresh and popular.
**Elliot Dorff **
If, as expected, the top lawmaking body of Conservative Judaism opens the door next month to the ordination of gay rabbis and the sanctification of same-sex unions, the theological architect of the shift will be Rabbi Elliot Dorff, 63. Dorff is vice chair of the legal panel, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and rector of the University of Judaism, which houses the Conservative movement’s Left Coast rabbinical school. He’s also one of the movement’s leading bio-ethicists and is emerging as one of the most unifying and listened-to theological voices in a movement that’s spent a generation searching for its theological center. He authored the liberal opinion that the Law Committee is expected to endorse next month, but his approach — sanctioning gay relationships while upholding the biblical ban on homosexual intercourse — upsets traditionalists who oppose any liberalization, as well as liberals who reject any restrictions. The key question is how congregants will respond: Will they see Dorff’s opinion as an inspired balance of tradition and modernity, or tune it out as the latest dodge by an out-of-touch, has-been movement?
**Richard Joel **
Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, 61, always has been a man with grand visions. Now, thanks to a recent $100 million gift from fertilizer magnate Ronald Stanton, he might be able to afford them. Y.U., a full-scale university with an affiliated rabbinical seminary, is already the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy; but Joel, a lawyer by training and ex-president of Hillel, is aiming to raise the university’s overall academic profile and expand its Jewish reach. He’s already launched the Center for the Jewish Future, a think tank-cum-leadership training center that some observers see as a challenge to the influence of right-wing rabbis at Y.U.’s rabbinical seminary. He has vowed to expand the university’s 3,000-student undergraduate population by 1,000 and reportedly hired nearly three-dozen tenure-track professors last year. The terms of Stanton’s gift give Joel great flexibility in spending, letting him push ahead with new initiatives. Critics whisper that Joel is a cheerleader and salesman who lacks the intellectual vigor to take Y.U. to a higher level. With his ambitious plans and new $100 million in hand, he’s well positioned to prove them wrong.
**Sharon Kleinbaum **
As senior rabbi of New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, Sharon Kleinbaum is no stranger to crowds. Since she joined the synagogue in 1992, it has become the world’s largest for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews. Yom Kippur services this year drew some 3,400 worshippers, and so they had to be held at Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a venue better known for trade shows than for worship services. This past August, as co-chair of Jerusalem WorldPride, a weeklong international festival, Kleinbaum, 47, moved to an even bigger stage. Bringing the festival to fruition was no mean feat. In a rare show of unity, anti-gay Jewish and Muslim religious leaders came together to condemn it. The festival was scheduled for last year, but the Gaza withdrawal led to a postponement. This year the festival arrived as the Lebanon war raged; a parade was canceled, but the WorldPride program went on — evidence of the grit and stick-to-it spirit that have made Kleinbaum a leader.
When 3,000 rabbis and leaders of Lubavitch Hasidism in 72 countries gather this month at New Jersey’s Garden State Exhibit Center, their presence will serve as stark testimony to the explosive growth of this once-marginal sect. A dozen years after the death of its charismatic leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism still has no new rebbe to guide it — and yet the movement continues to expand worldwide, the most dynamic, fastest-growing wing of Judaism. Chabad synagogues dot the landscape from South Florida to Southern California. Chabad-Lubavitch dominates Jewish life in most of the former Soviet Union, to the frustration of other, less energetic denominations. In countless far-flung corners from Bangkok to Shanghai, if there’s a local Jewish communal presence to welcome the traveler or to shelter the troubled, it’s likely to be Chabad. Running it all from Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn is Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, 73, executor of Schneerson’s estate and now chairman of the board of the three main Lubavitch organizations. Born in Boston and educated at the prestigious Boston Latin School, he moved to Brooklyn in 1946 to pursue religious studies and by 1957 emerged as Schneerson’s chief aide and go-to man. More CEO than guru, he runs the empire with a quiet but firm hand. Chabad’s thousands of emissaries are left largely free to chart their paths in the field, but everyone knows who the boss is.
For those members of the Jewish community who have cringed for years at the sight of Dr. Laura and Madonna as public ambassadors of Jewish wisdom, help is on the way in the recent efforts of Rabbi Irwin Kula. Ordained a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Kula, 48, served for a time as a pulpit rabbi in Queens and the Midwest before moving to CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a New York-based think tank. He spent his first decade there on projects to lower barriers between Jewish denominations and increase sensitivity to Jewish teachings in the operations of Jewish organizations. Since taking over the presidency of CLAL, he has shifted his attention toward bringing Judaism into the American public square. He’s starred in two documentary films, had his own series on public television and appeared on “Oprah,” spreading the message that Jewish tradition can speak to everyone. He authored a Yom Kippur op-ed last month for USA Today, and with the release of his new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” he is becoming a regular on the “Today” show. At a time when religion is too often associated with absolutism and extremism, Kula combines ancient Jewish teachings and contemporary insights to articulate a practical, spiritual path that embraces uncertainty, complexity and tolerance. Most remarkable, Americans are buying it.
Liberal Orthodoxy moved into uncharted territory in September when New York’s Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer installed as its spiritual leader Dina Najman-Licht, the first woman known to hold that post in an Orthodox congregation anywhere. The congregation did not go so far as to call Najman-Licht its rabbi, a job formerly held by Columbia University Talmud professor David Weiss Halivni; instead, her title is to be rosh kehillah, or community head. Nonetheless, the boldness of the step was undeniable. Najman-Licht, a 38-year-old expert on Jewish bioethics, will deliver sermons, teach classes and fulfill other typically rabbinic functions. Najman-Licht is a product of several relatively new academies — including New York’s Drisha Institute and Nishmat in Jerusalem — that are specifically designed to train women in rabbinic law, part of a recent wave of incremental advances for women in Modern Orthodoxy. But KOE’s leaders say that their decision to hire Najman-Licht was not a matter of looking to make waves. According to KOE co-president Robert Sacks, there were a number of male candidates for the job. Najman-Licht was simply the best qualified.
Succession is rarely an orderly affair in the passionate, unruly world of the Satmar Hasidim. The founding Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, died childless in 1979 and left his title and court to his nephew Moshe. Joel’s widow never accepted the succession, and years of feuding ensued. That was nothing, however, compared to the battle that erupted last spring with Moshe’s death. Early odds favored Aaron, 58, the eldest of Moshe’s four sons, who has headed Satmar’s main satellite community in the upstate New York village of Kiryas Joel since 1984 and was widely seen as rebbe-in-waiting. But younger brother Zalman, 54, Moshe’s third son, gained the inside track in 1999 when his father put him in charge of the main Satmar congregation in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the capital of worldwide Satmar. Moshe’s death in April touched off months of angry maneuvering, from name-calling to lawsuits to synagogue brawls. A state court ruling in July, however, confirmed Zalman’s control of the main Satmar holdings in Brooklyn, leaving him effectively in charge of what’s considered the largest and one of the most influential sects in the Hasidic world.
When the Rev. Jerry Falwell decided last spring that it was time to extend a hand of fundamentalist Christian friendship to the Jewish community, it was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the very liberal Union for Reform Judaism, whom he invited to come and address the students at his very conservative Liberty University. Yoffie came in April, spoke warmly of shared values of family and morality, then launched into a spirited defense of church-state separation and gay marriage, winning some boos from the students. It was vintage Yoffie: polite, yet uncompromising — and perpetually in motion. Two months later he was in Jerusalem, attending the World Zionist Congress and demonstratively refusing to attend a delegates’ reception at the home of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who had told an interviewer he never addresses Reform clergy as “rabbi.” October found him in Kansas City, urging Reform congregants to take on greater ritual observance — the same theme with which he had begun the Jewish year last fall, in his address to the movement’s biennial convention in Houston. The two themes — political liberalism and religious traditionalism — have been Yoffie’s calling cards since he became the leader of Reform Judaism 10 years ago. They’re a big part of the reason that Yoffie, 59, remains the unchallenged head of American Judaism’s largest denomination. The other reason was on display in February, when he toured the hurricane-shattered New Orleans area to assess the needs of the local synagogues, discuss their plans for renewal — and to pray with them.