Membership in the 50 doesn’t mean that the Forward endorses what these individuals do or say. We’ve chosen them because they are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves. Not all these people have put their energies into the traditional frameworks of Jewish community life, but they all have embodied the spirit of Jewish action as it is emerging in America, and all of them have left a mark. This year’s Forward 50 includes 51 entries, to make room for an individual whose accidental discovery of his own Jewish identity rattled the political landscape in the closing weeks of a crucial election season: Virginia Senator George Allen.
Early next fall, religious studies professor Arnie Eisen of Stanford University will move to New York and become Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the nominal leader of Conservative Judaism in America. And then the tests will begin. Can a layman whose background is in social sciences take the reins of a world-renowned academy with a rabbinical seminary at its heart? Can a genial, mild-mannered thinker lead Conservative Judaism to rediscover its identity and to re-establish itself as the great middle ground of American Judaism? Most of all, in a Jewish community that is fraying at the edges, hardening at the core and polarizing between left and right, can the center hold? The seminary, as well as the larger Conservative movement for which it serves as incubator and beacon, is in flux. Membership rolls are thinning and graying, and leaders are bracing for a showdown over the divisive issue of gay ordination. For all the doubts, though, Eisen’s selection has been met with enormous enthusiasm. The choice was a bold one. At Stanford since 1986, Eisen, 55, has focused his research on the changing nature of Judaism in America today. American Jews, Eisen has argued, have become more autonomous in charting their individual religious identities and put less stock in religious institutions than they once did. Institutions and leaders need to recognize the new reality and find their place in it. Perhaps a leader who understands this fundamental new truth can give Conservative Judaism - and through it, the larger community - the jolt it needs.
Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer
No one raised an eyebrow when the Democratic Party decided, in its bid to recapture Congress this year, to name a pair of boychiks from the old neighborhood to mastermind the campaign: Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Northside Chicago, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Senator Chuck Schumer of Brooklyn, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Both are aggressive campaigners who managed to breathe some much-needed moxie into the party while avoiding the gaffes that sank fellow party leaders like Howard Dean and John Kerry. Schumer, 55, entered the Senate in 1998, after 18 years in the House, representing the most heavily Jewish district in Brooklyn. In the House he was known as a superhawk on Israel and an archliberal on everything else. In the Senate he’s considered Public Enemy No. 1 by the gun lobby, and he’s led Democratic opposition to conservative Bush judicial nominations. A Brooklynite to the core, his national image was summed up by a Midwestern newspaper columnist who wrote this summer, on learning of Virginia GOP Senator George Allen’s Jewish roots, that it was “like hearing that Chuck Schumer was a Southern Baptist.” As for Emanuel, 46, he is a son of an Israeli e´migre´ who entered national politics as one of the whiz kids of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential war room. He served in the Clinton White House as political director and domestic policy chief - Bubba’s Karl Rove - before winning a House seat in 2002, the first person of Israeli origin ever elected to Congress. This summer he led a group of Democrats in boycotting a congressional speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who had just lambasted Israel’s war against Hezbollah. For the November contest, both Schumer and Emanuel made a point - despite their own unabashed liberalism - of recruiting moderate and conservative Democrats who could win in Red states. Both then proceeded to raise unprecedented sums of money. It’s been said that just as the Jews maintained the Sabbath, so the Sabbath maintained the Jews. Apparently, the same thing goes for the Democratic Party.
If a man can be known by the enemies he makes, then Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, must be one of the toughest Jews in America. Now in his 20th year as ADL chief, Foxman, 66, has become a magnet for attacks by critics of Israel, opponents of the Israel lobby and just plain Jew-bashers who like to take him on in hopes of showing how tough they are. The latest of these slapdowns came last month in a public letter addressed to Foxman, signed by 114 prominent American intellectuals, upbraiding him for a phone call - which he never made - supposedly bullying the Polish consul in New York to cancel a lecture by historian Tony Judt. Why do they pick on Foxman? Mostly because they’ve heard of him. With his raspy voice, blunt manner and track record of success, he’s arguably the most recognizable individual in the entire Jewish institutional network. It follows that if a Jewish group spoke out, it must have been Foxman’s ADL. And if Foxman spoke out, he must have been accusing someone of antisemitism - probably unfairly, critics suspect. In real life, the ADL chief has spent much of the past year on a campaign to warn Americans of the dangers of the religious right and its anti-democratic tendencies toward homophobia, bigotry and religious coercion. Foxman wants Jews especially to speak out against the Christian right, even if it means threatening their alliance with Israel, because democracy, in his view, is indivisible. In his spare time he runs a $50 million-a-year operation that conducts tolerance training for police, brings together black and Jewish teenagers and teaches synagogues how to beef up security.
In November 1997, after Ruth Messinger was trounced in her bid to unseat New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, ending her long career in municipal politics, the smart money said the onetime schoolteacher and city councilwoman would slip quietly into obscurity. Nine years later, Messinger, 66, is more visible than ever on the world stage, firmly established as La Pasionaria of Jewish social activism. President of American Jewish World Service, she runs a worldwide network of economic development and social change programs - 250 projects in 40 countries - and commands a small army of volunteers around the globe fighting disease, building water systems, teaching literacy and, not incidentally, making friends for the Jewish people. In 2005, as we noted in last year’s Forward 50, she was in the Oval Office advising President Bush on how to get emergency relief to tsunami-ravaged South Asia. This past spring found her outside the White House, leading a mass rally to demand an end to genocide in Darfur. No single American has been more central in mobilizing public protest over the genocide in Sudan; it’s part of her larger vision of religious engagement with Africa and the Third World. When the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, appeared before the United Nations General Assembly in September and accused “Zionist organizations” of cooking up the international outcry against his government’s massacres, few listeners had any doubt whom he had in mind.
He may deliver his “fake news” with a smirk and offer some of the best-rated comedy on television, but Jon Stewart’s success is no joke. Brian Williams, anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” calls him “a freestanding branch of government.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says that even though she reads 10 newspapers a day, she still takes notes while watching him. An Indiana University study released earlier this year found that “The Daily Show,” Stewart’s nightly romp through politics and culture, is “just as substantive” as network news. He was in the limelight at this year’s two biggest award shows, hosting the Oscars and walking away with the Emmys. With his snarky dissections of government double-talk, Stewart may have done more to turn public opinion against the Iraq war (Mess-O’Potamia, he calls it) than any other media figure in America today. When his barbs begin to seem too earnest, he’s often brought down to earth by one of his “Daily Show correspondents” accusing him of “effete, East Coast Jewy-ness” or something similar. Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz (he dropped Leibowitz, he’s said, because it sounded “too Hollywood”), he grew up playing in his high school band, idolizing Eugene V. Debs and feeling like an outcast among gentiles. Now, at 43 (even here he has the president’s number), he needn’t worry anymore. But that doesn’t stop him. “Jon is driven,” his friend and producer Ben Karlin told Rolling Stone recently, “by the forces of guilt and shame and fear of being on the outside that gives Jews their comic angst.”
This year, following the departures of Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith from the Pentagon, and that of Scooter Libby from the White House, Elliott Abrams became the senior neoconservative policy voice in the Bush administration. And, in his new role as deputy national security adviser, Abrams, 58, has achieved the impossible: bridging the gap between the State Department and the White House. A son-in-law of neoconservative patriarch Norman Podhoretz, Abrams served in the Reagan administration and was convicted (and later pardoned) in the Iran-Contra scandal. He joined the Bush administration as Middle East director at the National Security Council under then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. When Rice moved to State, he became number two at the NSC but maintained close ties to his old boss. He accompanied her on a Middle East swing during last summer’s Lebanon war, advocating a hands-off U.S. approach that let Israel pursue military operations at its own pace. State Department officials urged an American brokered cease-fire, but Rice followed Abrams’s lead. At a time when Washington is rethinking neoconservatism, Abrams has held his own - and, more important, cemented his role as a key player in Middle East policy-making.
From his post as executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks orchestrated an aggressive, hard-knuckled media campaign this season to convince voters and political donors that the Democratic Party could no longer be counted on to stand by Israel. It was an uphill battle, but Brooks, 40, has gotten used to running uphill since he took over the coalition in 1990. He’s had modest success in moving Jewish votes to the GOP, and even less success assembling a body of senior Jewish Republican office-holders. What he has shown is a prodigious ability to raise money and a skill at mobilizing top GOP officials, Jewish and non-Jewish, to speak directly to the Jewish community. Most of all, he’s helped drive the discourse in the Jewish community media, energized Republican Jewish donors and lay leaders to speak out and created an atmosphere of parity between the two parties in a community that still votes 4-to-1 Democratic. His organization’s provocative ads - starting with one declaring thtat Democratic voters had “silenced” the pro-Israel voice of Senator Joseph Lieberman - sent Democrats scrambling to shore up their support in the Jewish community. In a year that looks Democratic from every other viewpoint, that is some achievement.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jane Harman has been among her party’s most hawkish members. At the same time, she is one of the sharpest critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Now, as post-election jockeying begins, the six-term legislator is certain to grab more headlines fighting to keep her post as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. For months, Washington insiders have suspected that the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, intends to rotate Harman off the committee, just as the Democrats prepare to take control. Harman has made it equally clear that she intends to stay, launching an unabashed lobbying campaign that has played out in the media and included pleas from prominent donors. A graduate of Harvard Law School, wife of hi-fi pioneer Sidney Harman and a former deputy secretary in the Carter administration, the 61-year-old Southern Californian is a seasoned political fighter with an independent streak. A member of the Democrats’ centrist Blue Dog Coalition, she voted to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq, but has since drawn the administration’s ire by repeatedly denouncing the war’s execution as a “failed strategy.” Her liberal detractors, reportedly including Pelosi, say she has not been critical enough, particularly of the GOP’s program of domestic wiretaps.
In just six years, Joseph Lieberman went from making history as the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee to being dumped by primary voters enraged by his support for the Iraq War and his sharp jabs at its critics. In defeat, however, Connecticut’s junior senator found redemption, handily winning the general election with strong support from Republicans and independents - and more than a few Democrats. That’s no small achievement in an era of extreme partisanship. During the primary, Lieberman, 64, was on the defensive, desperate to prove his Democratic bona fides. Running as an independent, he seemed comfortable in his centrist skin. Even in 2000, at the apogee of his career as a Democrat, Lieberman’s hawkish foreign-policy views and religion-infused rhetoric drew the suspicion of liberal activists, including many of his fellow Jews. But however strained his party ties, Lieberman is in his element reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans on such issues as global warming and aid to faith-based charities. While Lieberman has promised to caucus with the Democrats, many predict that he’ll be charting his own course. With the Senate closely divided, that could give this path-breaking Jewish politician more clout than ever.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Newly re-elected to a second term in the House of Representatives after running unopposed, Debbie Wasserman Schultz continues to be a Democratic rising star. A good-government liberal from south Florida, the 40-year-old lawmaker burst onto the national scene as a forceful opponent of congressional intervention during the 2005 Terri Schiavo controversy. She’s since won growing esteem from senior colleagues: Last winter, she was tapped to testify at the Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, and, with her selection as senior whip, became the only freshman representative to join the House Democratic leadership team. Wasserman Schultz played a key role in the Democrats’ campaign to retake the House this fall as co-chair of the Red to Blue program, which provided financial and technical help to three-dozen of its most competitive challengers. A mother of three who represents one of the nation’s most heavily Jewish districts - stretching northward from Miami to Hollywood - Wasserman Schultz is unabashed about her heritage. For her swearing-in ceremony in January 2005, she insisted on using a Hebrew Bible instead of the standard Christian one. This year she sponsored a measure, passed by both chambers of Congress, setting in motion an official Jewish American History Month.
IDEAS & ACTIVISM
As the Conservative movement picks its way through a host of hot-button debates ― from ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis to accepting interfaith families ― Rabbi Jill Jacobs has almost single-handedly forced the movement to refocus on one of the oldest issues on the social agenda: workers’ rights. Three years ago, Jacobs, fresh out of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, first presented the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards with a rabbinic opinion, or teshuva, calling for Jewish business owners to give workers a living wage and, when possible, to hire union employees. Now, at the youthful age of 31, the zealous labor activist and the director of education at Jewish Funds for Justice isn’t backing down in her quest to position Conservative Judaism in line with the needs of American workers. While her opinion failed to win approval in September on its third pass before the religious lawmaking body, Jacobs is still tweaking her 53-page opinion paper ― and hoping that the fourth time’s the charm.
For nearly two decades, in a bitterly partisan era, diplomat Dennis Ross commanded respect on both sides of the aisle as coordinator of Israeli-Arab peace efforts in the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. These days he works as a scholar and commentator for two hawkish-leaning outfits, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Fox News Channel; yet he remains a forceful voice for a vigorous American role in the peace process and for U.S. engagement with Syria, and he recently lent his name to an Israel Policy Forum effort to draft peace policy recommendations for the current Bush administration. More recently, he has begun working to bridge the growing divide between Israeli and American Jews, as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a think tank created by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The institute’s mandate is to plan for the future, but this year Ross, 58, found himself focusing on the here and now: He played a lead role in taking on political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer after they issued their broadside against the “Israel Lobby.” In the year ahead, Ross is likely to find himself serving once again as an important conduit to Jerusalem, now that Israel’s ambassador to Washington is Sallai Meridor. The two men became close when Ross was working for the first Bush administration and Meridor was in the Likud-controlled defense ministry; and it was Meridor who tapped Ross to head the Jewish Agency think tank.
Susan Tuchman scored a significant victory for the Zionist Organization of America when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights agreed to investigate the 2004 complaint she filed against the University of California, Irvine, alleging a pattern of antisemitism on the Orange County campus. It was the first case of anti-Jewish harassment on an American college campus to win a formal government probe. As Jewish students on such campuses as Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, charged that professors were stifling pro-Israel voices in the classroom and intimidating them into silence, Tuchman ― a Boston litigator before becoming director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice in 2003 ― was the first to put legal teeth into Jewish organizations’ warnings of rising anti-Israel sentiment in university classrooms. Tuchman, 49, later testified at a November 2005 hearing convened by a separate office, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to air allegations of antisemitism both inside and outside of the classroom. The result of that hearing was a groundbreaking set of findings and recommendations released this past spring, which concluded that Jewish students are protected under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal anti-discrimination statute that bars discrimination on the basis of national origin.
An Air Force veteran turned church-state gadfly who compares himself to napalm, Mikey Weinstein has successfully trained national attention on the hidden phenomenon of religious proselytizing within the military. After warning last year that his two sons had felt religious intolerance at his alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the onetime Reagan administration official and general counsel to H. Ross Perot won an official investigation into practices at the school. When the Air Force finally issued a watered-down set of sensitivity guidelines last winter, Weinstein, 51, was one of a minority of Jewish voices who objected. This past year, Weinstein sued the federal government over ongoing problems at the academy. He also turned his one-man campaign into the not-for-profit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which tracks church-state violations throughout the military. He’s attracted a list of marquee backers, including Bush critic Joseph Wilson and his wife, ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame. And there’s more: Last July, St. Martin’s Press published his memoir, “With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military.” Later this year, Weinstein and his sons will be featured in a documentary about Christian-Jewish relations by Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby.
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.
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?
Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, 56, 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.
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.
Among the welter of competing religious and ideological options that young Jews are presented with at college, Wayne Firestone has developed a rare ability to calm the noise and create an open space for discussion. Firestone, a former international lawyer, first showed his gift with students as the head of the Israel on Campus Coalition, where he had to defend Israel without falling into defending the orthodoxies that often turn off students. He was so successful that last fall he was named executive vice-president of Hillel, the 80-year-old national Jewish campus organization, and this past spring he was named president of the whole show at the tender age of 42. Firestone’s ambitions for the organization became clear in the five-year strategic plan he presented. He aims to double the number of students coming to Hillel events and to double fundraising. Firestone began his Jewish activism as a student at the University of Miami ― and all these successes later, he still carries the youthful idealism of an eager student.
As the top dog in the complicated world of kosher food inspection, Rabbi Menachem Genack usually works behind the scenes. But this year, a series of scandals forced him into the public eye to steady the culinary bedrock of America’s observant Jews. First, Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s worldwide Kosher Division, had to deal with complaints about the treatment of both animals and workers at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, the Iowa-based AgriProcessors. Later in the year, he was pushed into action after it was discovered that a kosher distributor in upstate New York was selling nonkosher meat. Each time, Genack reassured consumers in his quiet, scholarly way, without giving a free pass to the companies in question. The tremendous success of the industry today is largely due to Genack, 59, who has been at his post since graduating from rabbinical seminary in the 1960s. Since then, O.U. Kosher has grown to a company with 550 employees overseeing 400,000 products. The problems of the past year suggest that supervision may not have kept up with the industrialization of the food industry. While it’s too early to tell if Genack’s interventions will heal the problems and maintain public faith, few doubt that if anyone can do it, it will be him.
The scope of David Harris’s global Rolodex became evident this spring when the American Jewish Committee celebrated its 100th anniversary with a weeklong convention in Washington ― climaxing in a gala dinner at which President Bush sat next to both Kofi Annan and the president of Germany. Since Harris took over as executive director of the committee 16 years ago, he has burnished the organization’s international credentials and emerged personally as a polished statesman who can come in to heal foreign rifts, mixing quiet diplomacy with judicious displays of muscle. The emphasis in Harris’s public pronouncements and weekly radio addresses this year was on the threat of a nuclear Iran, but Harris, 57, works far beyond the Middle East agenda. The organization is deeply involved in the national debate on immigration, and has taken a lead role in mobilizing the Jewish community on the sleeper issue of energy independence. And this year, Harris opened the committee’s new Africa Institute, which hopes to build on the Jewish activism on the Darfur conflict to create a durable strategy for aiding the bleeding continent.
With Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan implemented, and the second stage, a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, on indefinite hold, Malcolm Hoenlein has worked hard to rebuild the shaky unity that used to prevail among the 52 national agencies that make up the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, 62, is now in his 20th year as executive vice chairman of the conference. He has overcome countless challenges both at home and abroad, including differences of opinion with various Israeli governments, to maintain his position as the organized Jewish community’s senior voice on foreign affairs. In the past year, Hoenlein has effectively prodded Jewish organizations to speak out together on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, staging protests outside United Nations headquarters and pressing non-Jewish allies to stand firm. At the same time, Hoenlein and the conference were faced this year with a new kind of struggle, when Professors Walt and Mearsheimer published their indictment of the “Israel Lobby.” The Jewish community was quick to dispute the claims, but the article has managed to stir unremitting debate ― one that is sure to require Hoenlein’s attention in the year to come.
As executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Nancy Kaufman, 55, has proved that large numbers of Jews can successfully be mobilized around issues of social justice, in addition to such traditional Jewish causes as supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism. She led the Boston JCRC to play a critical role in mobilizing support for a historic bill to provide nearly universal health care to the state’s residents. The bill passed last spring. Her council was also a founder of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, which sent one the largest contingents to last April’s rally in Washington. A former state assistant secretary for social and mental health services under former governor Michael Dukakis, she holds a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In the 15 years she has led the Boston JCRC, Kaufman has seen her staff grow from a handful to nearly 30. She has developed a number of widely praised programs, including the Boston Coalition for Literacy, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. And with the JCRC’s new and growing program to introduce teenagers to social justice work, Kaufman is bringing her dedication to tikkun olam to the next generation.
When two senior employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were indicted on charges of receiving and disseminating classified information, no one expected it would bring anything but grief to the organization. Nobody is celebrating the crisis, but executive director Howard Kohr has steered the lobbying powerhouse out of legal troubles and even managed to ride the wave of grass-roots sympathy ― and resentment of government meddling ― to build Aipac beyond anything seen before. The group’s membership soared to more than 100,000 members, double what it was just five years ago, while its annual fundraising surpassed the $40 million record set the year before. Aipac is broadening the scope of its pro-Israel advocacy, too. It’s expanding its campus presence and increasing grass-roots Israel-related programs. In the past year, Kohr, 50, has restructured Aipac’s internal operations, combining the legislative and executive lobbying departments and broadening the organization’s lobbying issues to include homeland security and fighting terror. The highlight of the overhaul comes next year, when the lobby will move into its new building in downtown Washington. Still, Kohr faces a difficult year: The ex-staffers are due to go on trial in January, and the executive director is likely to be called to the stand to give, for the first time, a detailed account of Aipac’s practices.
In a year when the entire system of American Jewish federated philanthropies was put to the test by Israel’s war with Hezbollah, the Chicago federation proved its mettle as an unstoppable fundraising powerhouse. With Steven Nasatir at the helm, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago took in a cool $38 million (and counting), or 15% of the national total ― from a community that numbers just 4% of all American Jews. After more than a quarter-century as chief executive, Nasatir, 61, remains at the top of his game. And other federation honchos have started to take notice: After hearing from Nasatir about his innovative strategy for maximizing financial resource development, the heads of the 19 big-city federations asked him to conduct a wider training program for them and their staff members. In July, 110 federation staffers descended on the Windy City to learn Nasatir’s secrets. Nasatir continues to innovate in the funding of day schools. And this year he started front-loading payments, a system whereby financial pledges are paid in one full sum rather than taking 10 years to fulfill the obligation.
Within a few days of the first Hezbollah rockets falling on northern Israel, Carole Solomon was on the ground, in the bunkers, determining just where Jews around the world could best be able to help the besieged Israelis. The Israeli government was widely criticized for abandoning the needs of the home front, but Solomon and a few other philanthropic leaders made sure there were charitable dollars to fill at least some of the holes. As chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the world’s largest and most broadly representative Jewish philanthropy, Solomon took a lead role in coordinating the worldwide effort. Within a few weeks, she had put together some $300 million in commitments from American Jewish charitable federations ― a sum roughly equal to the entire annual budget of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. Since being elected to her position in 2003 ― the first woman to ever take the spot ― Solomon has developed a reputation for skillful, low-key consensus-building. That’s no small achievement. Surveys consistently show passion for Israel’s needs gradually declining among American Jews. With deft negotiations, Solomon has ensured that American Jewish dollars haven’t similarly declined.
Sacha Baron Cohen
In the movie that’s sweeping America this week, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the oafish Kazakh reporter created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen travels to Los Angeles to meet his dream girl, Canadian beauty Pamela Anderson, but he’s rejected and returns home. In reality, Baron Cohen bought a home in Los Angeles where he’s settling down with his fiancee, Australian beauty Isla Fisher, who is preparing to convert to Judaism. The first step ― buying a home here ― qualifies Baron Cohen for inclusion in the Forward 50, which is for members of the American Jewish community. The second, conversion, tells you a lot about why he intrigues us. His shtick, first aired on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” leaves half of us gasping and the other half outraged. It’s riddled with the basest antisemitism, racism, misogyny and anti-Kazakh stereotypes. We know he means it as a joke, a way of holding up a mirror to our flaws. But he’s only half kidding. His crusade against bigotry is a lifelong passion. Raised in an Orthodox home in Surrey and still observant, he was active in the Labor Zionist youth group Habonim (his online biography claims he was the all-Britain Habonim ga-ga champion) and spent a year on kibbutz. He wrote his Cambridge undergraduate thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement. Friends say he’s a mix of class clown and earnest do-gooder. With his newest smash hit, he’s ratcheted things up a level, opening a national dialogue on prejudice. And early reports suggest that he’s now considered the funniest Jew in America. Jon Stewart, watch your back.
Imagine you’re the 26-year-old CEO of a small, unlikely enterprise ― a not-for-profit Jewish record label achieving genuine success ― and the biggest star in your lineup fires you for being too small to handle the fame you helped him achieve. What do you do? If you’re Aaron Bisman, co-founder of JDub Records, you expand your horizons. Since his former friend and client, reggae sensation Matisyahu, left for new management, Bisman has kept busy with a growing number of progressive Jewish musicians, including Balkan Beat Box, an electronica-folk band; the six-piece klezmer-punk band Golem; Yiddish rapper DJ Socalled, and the rock band The Levees. He’s also launched a new artists’ grant program called the Six Points Fellowship. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native has made a name for himself by wrangling support for his relatively radical ideas from some of the stodgiest corners of the established Jewish community. But the truest keys to his success may be the simplest: his broad, yet oddly particular definition of Jewish music, and his belief in its power to forge community among young Jews.
Earlier this year, when the backers of the highbrow Koret Jewish Book Awards announced that they were shifting their emphasis from scholarly excellence to popular accessibility, some observers wondered about the repercussions for the Jewish book world. It had been widely accepted that while Koret handled the more erudite titles, the Jewish Book Awards, run by the Jewish Book Council, generally handled the more popular offerings. The jury is still out on the new Koret Awards, now under the auspices of Jewish Family & Life!, but the move seems to have left the Jewish Book Awards unscathed. The result is likely due to the grit and staying power of Carolyn Hessel, executive director of the Jewish Book Council, who remains one of the most powerful arbiters of Jewish literature in the United States. The council coordinates some 70 annual Jewish book fairs at community centers nationwide and oversees the National Jewish Book Awards. Insiders sometimes gripe that the process can unfairly make or break a book. But Hessel remains committed to her mission, even if her influence occasionally lands her in controversy. “My goal is to promote the reading, writing and understanding of books of Jewish interest,” she told the Forward. “And I define ‘Jewish interest’ in the broadest terms.”
Incredible, but the evidence is compelling: After two films together, a magazine cover and numerous joint interviews, Scarlett Johansson seems to have cured filmmaker Woody Allen of his shiksa fetish. Following in the WASP-y footsteps of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, the actress, who turns 22 this month, played the lead in Allen’s last two films ― 2005’s “Match Point” and this year’s “Scoop” ― and fit so seamlessly into his oeuvre that the auteur himself is said to have proclaimed her “touched by God.” The daughter of a Danish father and a Jewish mother with Bronx roots, Johansson is hardly just another pretty face (although she was named “the most beautiful woman in the world” this year by Esquire magazine and as “the world’s sexiest woman” by rival FHM). With four Golden Globe nominations, she’s one of the most sought-after actresses working today. Nor is she another super-skinny Hollywood body; she famously flaunts her voluptuous curves (which have won her a few other “best in the world” honors best left unspecified). But all this pales in comparison with what’s on the horizon. According to press accounts, Johansson has been chosen to play Marjorie Morningstar, the iconic Jewess of modern American literature, in an Al Pacino-directed remake of Herman Wouk’s 1955 classic novel. Queen Esther and Bess Myerson, move over; a new Jewish beauty has conquered the world.
The obnoxious Jew is cool again, and we have Jeremy Piven to thank. The 41-year-old actor is responsible for one of contemporary television’s most loathsome, exciting characters: Hollywood agent Ari Gold on HBO’s hit show, “Entourage.” Readers needn’t take our word for it; Piven walked away this summer with an Emmy for his work. Based on real-life superagent Ari Emanuel (who, coincidentally, also appears in this year’s Forward 50), Piven has so expertly captured the crass, brash persona of the Tinseltown Jew that he is said to have caused twinges of self-consciousness in many a real-life agent. And with the release of “Keeping Up With the Steins,” a wry feature-film take on the contemporary bar mitzvah, Piven, a native of Evanston, Ill., has proved that he can play more than one kind of Jewish character. For those who still didn’t get his philosophy of muscular, macho Jewishness, Piven posed for a GAP ad campaign ― with his Star of David pendant hanging proudly from a chain between his clenched teeth.
When a young writer closed her 2006 debut short-story collection with “Letter to Philip Roth,” she seemed to be voicing the anxiety of influence felt by her whole generation. Simply put, the 73-year-old icon continues to cast the widest shadow on American Jewish fiction. The evidence is so familiar that listing it seems superfluous: winner of the National Book Award, the National Medal of Arts and the Pulitzer Prize; author of several armies of books, an astonishing number of which could, on their own, each be considered the transcending work of a lifetime. Even as the Library of America packages his work for the canon of American fiction, Roth continues to churn out more of it. Some readers worried that this year’s offering ― “Everyman,” his most straightforward meditation on death ― hinted that the author has turned his attention to a world of which he is no longer a part. Perhaps. But if so, he may be one of the very few who can bear to envision it.
With the publication this year of his second novel, “Absurdistan,” writer Gary Shteyngart has dispelled fears that he might?e a one-hit wonder, and sealed his place as the leading writer of the new Russian Jewish immigrant generation.?hteyngart, 34, first hit the literary scene in 2003 with “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” a?austic, uproarious account of a young Russian immigrant searching for love, a job and a credible identity. The book?as a critical and commercial success, catapulting Shteyngart ― a former staffer at the New?ork Association for New Americans (“Jew Americans, we used to call it,” he says) ― to fame. He’s been working to unpeel the often-uncomfortable layers of the immigrant experience, skewering his fellow?ussians and indicting the American Jewish community into which they were thrust. (In Hebrew school, Shteyngart once told the Forward, “I felt so unaccepted, so hated by these Jews, because I was Russian, because I?idn’t wear the right shirt, because I was poor, because I read books.”) “Absurdistan”?emented Shteyngart’s role as one of today’s most forceful Jewish writers ― one who takes his Jewishness seriously enough to question it utterly. “Compared with most young novelists his age, who tend toward cutesy involution, Shteyngart is a giant mounted on horseback,” wrote Walter Kirn in The New York Times.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the Jews were preserved because they didn’t change their names, their way of speech or their religion. Barbra Streisand did them one better. She built a career by daring the public to mock her. She took on such risky roles as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” Yentl the yeshiva boy and Katie Morosky, the Jewish socialist in “The Way We Were.” All these characters are thinly veiled versions of Streisand ― gutsy, rebellious, indomitable ― and she triumphed every time. At 64 she is the best-selling female singer in history and one of America’s most versatile and honored entertainers, with 10 Grammys, six Emmys, two Oscars, 11 Golden Globes, a Peabody and a Tony to her credit. She’s also one of the most controversial figures in Hollywood, a prodigious donor to Democratic and Jewish causes (from Peace Now to an Orthodox day school named after her father), and a relentless critic of the Bush White House. Her current live concert tour ― only her second in 40 years ― has drawn repeated heckling from fans who don’t like her anti-Bush gibes. Love her or hate her, she’s the living embodiment, on screen and off, of old-fashioned Jewish liberalism.
This year, when Oprah Winfrey found that her reputation as the Queen of Media was in danger of being sullied, she reached for a surefire lifesaver: Elie Wiesel. Days after one of her book club selections was unmasked as a fraud, Winfrey named Wiesel’s 1958 classic “Night” as her next selection ― ensuring it new life on the best-seller list and in book clubs nationwide. Wiesel, born in 1928 in Romania and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, initially earned fame for the harrowing existentialism of his memoirs. Although questions have been raised about the accuracy of certain passages in “Night,” none held enough water to undercut Wiesel’s latest primetime venture ― which culminated with him leading Winfrey on a personal journey through Auschwitz. But winning stardom in Oprah’s book club is not the only accomplishment that sets this year apart as an important one for Wiesel. Following years of discussions, the United Nations held its first international day of remembrance of the Holocaust ― an event made doubly significant by the escalating efforts of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deny the Nazi genocide. (Wiesel recently called for Iran’s removal from the United Nations). Although some observers chafe at the 78-year-old’s status as a professional symbol of Jewish victimhood, this year there was no denying his power as a worldwide voice of conscience.
Jordan Farmar revived and updated the tradition of the Jewish point guard this year as he led the UCLA Bruins into the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball?hampionship game in April. The product of an interfaith family, Farmar was bar mitzvahed at Temple Judea in the Tarzana section of Los Angeles. Seven years later, as a college sophomore, he was in the NCAA title game, leading his team in scoring and assists in what turned out to be a losing effort. Farmar decided to leave school early and wound up drafted in the first round by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. In his first game as a pro last week, the 19-year-old knocked down all three of his shots, displaying the poise that has served him well from the synagogue podium to the basketball court. He arrives in the National Basketball Association just in time to give Los Angeles a new Jewish sports idol as Shawn Green resurfaces in New York.
Two years ago, Shawn Green, 34, made the Forward 50 for a single act: sitting out a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game on Yom Kippur. Fans rhapsodized that his no-show had earned him a spot in an honor roll of Jewish sports heroes stretching back to Sandy Koufax in the 1960s and Hank Greenberg in the 1930s ― genuine stars who remember their roots. That was when he was one of the game’s star sluggers. This past August, after a year and a half with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was traded to the New York Mets, part of general manager Omar Minaya’s strategy of building fan loyalty by appealing to New York’s ethnic groups. It quickly became evident that Green’s best years were behind him. Still, his reception in the Big Apple was one of the strongest of his career. “The messiah has arrived,” read a fan’s hand-made sign at Green’s Shea Stadium debut. He didn’t lead the Mets to the promised land of the World Series, but traditional success was never really the point. With Green at the plate, the game had a new urgency for Jewish fans: It was as though we were standing right there with him. Not even a box seat can bring you that close to the action.
Charles Bronfman and Roger Bennett
Charles Bronfman, 75, has for decades championed innovative Jewish giving. From his backing of the Middle East peace process and support for Jewish-Arab coexistence programs to his support of Birthright Israel, which takes young Jews on free trips to Israel, the Seagrams heir has always put his money where his mouth is. Last winter, his wife, Andrea, was tragically killed after being struck by a car in New York City, leaving Bronfman bereft of his life’s love as well as his closest partner in philanthropy. But the mogul has carried on, expanding The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. Five years ago, Bronfman teamed up with Liverpool-born Roger Bennett, 36, and together they have built a charity oozing with creative juice, with a swath of cultural projects aimed at the next generation. Under a not-for-profit offshoot called Reboot, they’ve launched Guilt & Pleasure, a literary and art journal, and started funding such ironic hipster operations as Heeb magazine. Bennett is also responsible for Reboot Stereophonic, a cheeky record label that has released five albums of antiquarian Jewish kitsch-pop under such titles as “Bagels and Bongos” and “Jewface.” They’ve also launched Slingshot, which annually catalogs the 50 most innovative programs in Jewish life, as well as the Slingshot Fund, bringing together young Jewish philanthropists to dole out grants to chosen causes. Bennett also found time to compile a briskly selling book wryly titled “Bar Mitzvah Disco.”
As more and more mainstream Jewish philanthropists take up social justice causes, a fair share of the credit can go to Rabbi Jennie Rosenn for pushing charities in a more activist direction. Since 2003, when she became the program director for Jewish life and values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, one of America’s largest family foundations, she has sought to steer the charity’s work toward bridging Judaism and social action. Part of an emerging group of young liberal activists intent on putting community service and social justice back at the top of the Jewish agenda, Rosenn, 37, has been at it since her days as associate chaplain at the Columbia University Hillel, where she founded an advocacy center, Tzedek Hillel. This year, at her behest, Cummings provided seed money for a Reform congregation-based organizing project known as the Just Congregations Initiative. Rosenn is also putting real money into Selah, a program of the Jewish Funds for Justice aimed at training Jewish social activists. Her rallying cry: Community service should be just as much a Jewish rite of passage as a bar or bat mitzvah.
Alice Rosenwald, granddaughter of Sears-Roebuck founder Julius Rosenwald, is taking a page from her grandpa, allocating millions of philanthropic dollars to programs for society’s disadvantaged. While she also gives to Jewish causes ― she’s a top donor to New York’s UJA-Federation and the Joint Distribution Committee ― Rosenwald is passionate about preventing child abuse and has focused her giving in that direction. Co-chair of the merchant and investment bank American Securities Holdings Co., Rosenwald also co-chairs the board of Children’s Rights, which advocates for child welfare issues; this year she bestowed its Champion Award for her mega-gift in the range of $1.5 million. Grandfather Julius is revered to this day for creating a network of so-called Rosenwald Schools throughout the rural South in the early 1900s, privately funded public schools that provided education for poor black students when nobody else would. His scion has taken his spirit and his mission to heart, reminding others that Jewish giving doesn’t mean that Jews must be the only recipients.
Mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, a rare woman in a field of men, continues to stand out as a giant in the world of Jewish philanthropy. It has been a groundbreaking year for her. She opened her first fully staffed office in Israel, the Schusterman Foundation-Israel, and established the Center for Leadership Initiatives, a Vancouver-based charity with a mandate to nurture a new generation of Jewish communal leaders. When the Lebanon war broke out, her fledgling Israeli charity sprang into action and helped move women and children in the north into bomb shelters. This winter she’s bringing 500 American students to help rebuild the devastated north. A sparkplug at 67, Schusterman is passionately committed to programs that build girls’ self-esteem and protect children from abuse. Her Israeli office will focus much of its work on funding shelters and counseling abuse victims. Add in the work of her Tulsa, Okla.-based charity, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which funds Jewish day-school education, synagogue renewal, as well as Hillel programs and Birthright Israel (which she helped found), to name just a few, and Schusterman’s giving this year alone will total a cool $18 million.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Carol Smokler was largely responsible for the overwhelming response from the national Jewish community. As longtime chair of the national Emergency Relief Campaign of United Jewish Communities, she helped bring in more than $20 million to rebuild the region. But Smokler, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., was thinking long-term, not just about Band-Aids. She knew that the campaign for the Gulf Coast was going to be a long haul, requiring years of constant attention. The volunteer leader earned her stripes working with the local Jewish federation in Ann Arbor, Mich., before she leaped to the national stage, chairing UJC’s Women’s Constituency Board. The UJC Emergency Relief Campaign, created in 1989 to cope with Hurricane Hugo, has been under her leadership for nearly half its life, winning acclaim after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Known for her capacity to build teams, Smokler effectively moderated the debate over whether Jewish or non-Jewish institutions should get the bulk of the post-Katrina monies she helped to raise.
Jewish mega-donors, be forewarned: Ronald Stanton has upped the ante. Stanton, 78, set a new standard for Jewish giving this fall when he announced a gift to Yeshiva University of a cool $100 million ― the largest donation ever to Jewish education or culture in North America. A New York philanthropist who made his mint trading fertilizer, chemicals and crude oil as chairman of Transammonia Inc., Stanton has ties to Y.U. that date back to the late 1930s. As a young refugee from Germany, he was offered a scholarship to study for the rabbinate. He chose a business education at City College instead, but he eventually landed on the Y.U. board. He made his mark as a champion fundraiser for the school, heading up its successful $400 million capital campaign and serving a term as board chairman. He handpicked Richard Joel, a non-rabbi, to lead the Orthodox flagship into the 21st century. Stanton’s mega-gift will create the Ronald P. Stanton Legacy, a revolving fund to underwrite new building projects, faculty recruitment and research and undergraduate and Jewish education. It also will challenge others Jewish donors to follow suit, which was partly the point.
LAW & ORDER
After pleading guilty to three felony counts of mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, 48, walked out of federal court in January wearing a black fedora from a Brooklyn-based haberdasher that caters largely to Orthodox Jews. Some pundits suggested a resemblance to the Godfather, but those with a more nuanced eye noticed an unsettling religious symbolism in his chapeau. Abramoff is a very public Orthodox Jew in terms of his politics and philanthropy. He’s also is the first person whom Democrats should thank for their Election Day gains. After all, federal probes of Abramoff’s doings helped end the political careers of several top Republicans, including Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed, and ultimately to break the party’s grip on Congress. But there’s more. In addition to helping corrupt and undo the Republican Revolution of 1994, Abramoff also has undermined his own dream of a new brand of Jewish politics, based on an alliance with the Christian right. Abramoff once chaired the right-wing Jewish group Toward Tradition, which he promoted as an innovative partnership based on shared biblical values. Now, that partnership is looking more like an old-fashioned political racket. The moralizing wing of the Jewish religious right will have to spend a long time digging its way out of this one.
Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman
Ever since CBS News reported in August 2004 that the feds were investigating the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, two of the lobby’s top staffers, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, have seen their lives turned to hell. Rosen, Aipac’s director of policy, had been a fearsome legend in Washington for decades as the lobby’s mastermind and chief disciplinarian. Weissman was one of the capital’s most respected Iran experts. After being accused of meeting with a Pentagon analyst, receiving classified information and passing it to Israel, the two men suddenly found themselves jobless, reviled in the press as traitors, saddled with huge legal bills and facing long prison terms. Only gradually has it become apparent that the case wasn’t actually about national security, but the Bush administration’s obsessive desire to control information and plug leaks. The two were indicted under the rarely used Espionage Act of 1917, which was intended to stop federal employees from giving out state secrets; never before had it been used to punish civilians who receive the secrets. The audaciousness of the government’s strategy has aroused civil libertarians, human rights activists and freedom-of-the-press advocates. If their trial begins in January, as now scheduled (it’s already been postponed twice), Rosen, 64, and Weissman, 54, are likely to find themselves in the unexpected role of liberal culture heroes.
The 20th century was a cataclysmic era for Jews ― a time of cosmic tragedy, transcendent rebirth, mass migration and millions of individual journeys of every sort. Nobody knows that better this month than Senator George Allen of Virginia, a conservative Christian whose Jewish origins, hidden for a lifetime, popped out to ambush him in the midst of a critical re-election campaign. Allen’s inexplicable use of a North African slang insult on the campaign trail last summer was a rare bump in what promised to be an easy glide to victory. His clumsy response when he was asked about his rumored Jewish background ― calling it an “aspersion” ― turned a minor curiosity into a national embarrassment. Whether his political career will survive the gaffe was unclear at press time. What Allen, 54, ultimately makes of the discovery, only time will tell. But Allen’s back-story ― the tale of how his mother, Etty, a Tunisian-born Jew, escaped the Nazis and vowed to leave behind her Jewishness ― offers a sobering lesson for all of us. Nobody knows how many thousands or millions of Jews decided during World War II to discard the identity that Hitler had pronounced a capital crime. Some have since returned to their origins. Others never looked back. All of them are part of us, even the junior senator from Virginia.
The Four Gospels of Mel
Hollywood’s most talked-about performance this year belonged to Mel Gibson. Unfortunately for the Oscar-winning actor-filmmaker, it took place off-screen. Pulled over on the Pacific Coast Highway on July 28 on suspicion of drunk driving, he launched into an antisemitic tirade against the arresting officer. The incident may have turned Gibson, director of “The Passion of the Christ,” into a permanent outcast in Tinseltown. The fallout demanded a special category for four key players. “F*****g Jews.… The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” Gibson declared after being handcuffed and put inside a police car. He then asked the arresting officer, “Are you a Jew?”
In a neat bit of casting, it turned out that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee was indeed a member of the tribe. According to TMZ.com, the gossip Web site that first broke the story of Gibson’s arrest, authorities have investigated whether Mee, a 17-year veteran of the force, was the one who leaked the police report. But most signs suggest that Mee did his fellow Jewish cops proud, keeping his composure that night and during the ensuing media frenzy. “What I had hoped out of this is that he would think twice before he gets behind the wheel of a car and was drinking,” Mee told The Associated Press. “I don’t want to defame him in any way or hurt him.” As for Gibson’s comments about Jews, Mee added, “That stuff is booze talking.”
Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel was less forgiving. Just days after the incident, he set the tone for the film colony arguing on his blog that Gibson should be blackballed. “Now we know the truth. And no amount of publicist-approved contrition can paper it over,” wrote Emanuel, kid brother of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (see above) and inspiration for super-agent Ari Gold on the HBO show “Entourage” (see Jeremy Piven). “People in the entertainment community, whether Jew or gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice.”
As it turned out, the publicist approving (or writing, skeptics said) Gibson’s apologies was Alan Nierob, a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors. Nierob ― who has represented the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Denzel Washington at top PR firm Rogers & Cowan ― first guided Gibson through the furor over “The Passion.” Now he’s again been Gibson’s conduit to the world, issuing contrite statements and speaking to the press as the filmmaker headed to rehab.
The final word belonged to comedian Dennis Leary, who launched into an on-air anti-Mel tirade while appearing as a guest commentator at an August 15 Boston Red Sox game. His muse: Kevin Youkilis, Boston’s Jewish first baseman. Leary cracked the jokes ― “You happy Braveheart, huh? You see that grab, Mel? I hope in rehab they’re showing replays of that” ― but Youkilis, 27, supplied the setup and inspiration with three great plays in a row, each sending Leary into a greater frenzy. In the end, Youkilis’s performance was the perfect answer to the Gibsons of the world, doing more than any press release or angry blog post to boost Jewish pride.