The conservative White House and the conservative Congress are fertile lobbying grounds for a conservative organization like the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Orthodox Jews voted overwhelmingly for President Bush last November — more than 70%, some studies suggest — and have been rewarded at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Maximizing the dividend, in access and goodwill, is Nathan Diament, 38, the Orthodox Union’s Washington lobbyist, who has emerged as the one of the most effective links between the Jewish organizational world and the powerbrokers in Republican Washington. The energetic, media-savvy Harvard Law School graduate has been instrumental in asserting the agenda of his community, which accounts for only 10% of America’s Jews but looms far larger in the Bush presidency. Whether on school vouchers, government funding for churches and parochial schools or defending the rights of religious people in the workplace, Diament works hard to advance the O.U.’s strategy of making Washington more “religion friendly.” It’s a strategy that is aimed both outward, at the political and judicial establishments, as well as inward, at the traditionally liberal Jewish establishment. On both fronts, supporters and critics agree, Diament has been successful. His organization took a nuanced position on Israel’s Gaza withdrawal; many Orthodox rabbis and congregants were fuming at the uprooting of settlers, but the O.U. resisted pressure from its grassroots and its Israeli allies and steered a middle course, careful not to second-guess the Israeli government — nor to alienate a sympathetic White House.
With its $80 million annual budget and outsize public image, the Anti-Defamation League and its national director, Abraham Foxman, can’t help being targets. Whether it’s antisemites who see ADL as the Jews’ main defender, or other Jewish agencies wishing they were No. 1, there’s never a shortage of folks looking to take potshots. Last year, Foxman, 65, was accused of grandstanding and worse when he took on Mel Gibson over anti-Jewish imagery in “The Passion of the Christ.” Last week he stirred up a new hornets’ nest with his call to other Jewish communal leaders to sit down together and map out a joint strategy for confronting the Christian right. Not that Foxman’s pitch is always perfect; in recent months he’s gotten into a series of pointless and unwinnable spats in an overzealous attempt to curb the misuse of Holocaust imagery — taking on, among others, Rep. Charles Rangel, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, crooner Harry Belafonte, Senator Richard Durbin, Christian conservative James Dobson and the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A handful apologized, including Durbin, but others simply hit back. Rangel accused him of “attacking black leaders” and called on him to quit. When that happens, send up the white smoke and run for cover.
Now in his 15th year as executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris continues the deft management that has restored and burnished his agency’s image as the class act of Jewish civil-rights agencies. On the international front, he continued his campaign to sign cooperative agreements with Jewish representative bodies in other countries — recent additions include Venezuela, Poland and Spain — implicitly making AJCommittee the representative voice of American Jews. He also launched plans for an AJC African affairs institute, replicating his admired European and South American efforts. On the domestic front, he responded to the Bush administration’s growing conservatism and mounting troubles by tacking slightly leftward; while keeping the war on terrorism center-stage, his agency endorsed an anti-torture bill opposed by the White House, backed immigrants’ rights efforts and opposed various Republican bids to lower the church-state separation wall. Capping it all, AJCommittee’s annual meeting in May bestowed its annual Light Unto the Nations award to Bill Clinton. Harris, 56, received a few honors himself, including the highest decoration of the French republic, the Légion d’honneur.
This was a tough year for Malcolm Hoenlein and his organization of organizations, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The 52-member conference is supposed to give voice to the Jewish community’s consensus support for Israel, but that’s tough when the community is too divided to reach consensus. That was the case this year. The Middle East agenda was dominated by a single subject, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, which was backed by most Jewish groups but bitterly opposed by some key factions, particularly in the Orthodox community. The conference endorsed the plan — later and less warmly than some leaders wished — but it didn’t play much of a public role. Complicating matters, some said, was Hoenlein’s own conservatism; left-wing critics said his views made him an unlikely candidate to mobilize the community for the pullout. Hoenlein, 61, also faced an unexpected challenge when Jack Rosen, the independent-minded head of the American Jewish Congress, mounted a bid to succeed James Tisch as the conference’s lay chairman. Hoenlein replied by recruiting an American Jewish Committee leader, Harold Tanner. Now that the Gaza pullout is completed, the two will have a chance to put the conference back in the center of things.
Unscathed so far in the worst scandal to ever hit his agency, Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has succeeded not only in steering America’s pro-Israel lobby away from the storm but even increasing its membership and budget significantly. In August 2004, when CBS first reported allegations that two senior Aipac officials were involved in misusing classified information, many said the allegations, if proven true, could fatally injure the lobbying powerhouse. Last May, on the eve of Aipac’s annual conference, when indictments against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman seemed imminent, Kohr, 49, made the painful yet inevitable decision to dismiss the two. Some Aipac supporters, including board members, criticized Kohr for firing Rosen, the man who first hired him away from the Republican Jewish Coalition in 1987, clearing the way for Kohr to become executive director in 1996. But Kohr realized that distancing the organization from Rosen, its policy director, and Weissman, its Iran specialist, could save Aipac from becoming a target itself. The two were indicted in August, but Aipac has so far suffered at worst marginal damage. Its fund-raising campaign this year was the most successful ever, topping last year’s $40 million record by “multiple millions of dollars,” officials said. Membership is now more than 100,000, up from 55,000 in 2000. Problems could arise when the trial opens in January, but for now, it appears Kohr and his team have managed to keep their vaunted lobbying organization at the top of its game.
When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf addressed Jewish communal leaders at an unprecedented public gathering this fall, the embattled Muslim leader made clear that he was looking to draw closer to American Jewry and Israel in hopes of solidifying his nation’s place in the Western orbit and proving its anti-terrorism bona fides. It was also another coup for the savvy chairman of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, who labored long to set up the meeting. Rosen, 59, born in a postwar displaced persons camp, has managed in recent years to resuscitate a flagging communal organization with a number of such audacious moves. Under his leadership, AJCongress has taken a hard-line stance on French antisemitism and allied itself with a grassroots French Jewish activist group — irritating mainstream Jewish leaders in Paris, but paying off in new respect and action from France’s government. This year he courted controversy from his liberal constituents by penning a cooperation agreement with a Russian Jewish group that is dominated by Chabad Hasidim and is close to the Kremlin. Once a major Clinton donor, Rosen has cultivated a friendship with President Bush and enjoys easy access to the White House — a rarity in the predominantly liberal American Jewish communal organizations. While his critics may carp that Rosen is a quick-change artist, the results of his non-ideological stance speak for themselves.
PHYLLIS SNYDER AND SAMMIE MOSHENBERG
While most Jewish organizational leaders have spent the past few years focused almost exclusively on Israel’s problems, the dynamic duo at the National Council of Jewish Women, president Phyllis Snyder and Washington director Sammie Moshenberg, have been stubbornly pursuing the old-fashioned liberalism supported by most American Jews — especially as it pertains to the federal courts. With “BenchMark,” its campaign to Save Roe v. Wade, the 110-year-old women’s council has emerged as the strongest Jewish voice on abortion rights — the public-policy issue that polls show is most on the minds of the great majority of Jewish women. At a meeting of Democratic senators and Jewish communal leaders convened last May by Senator Hillary Clinton, Snyder took the floor to urge those assembled to join NCJW in fighting extreme nominees to the federal bench. On Snyder’s watch, NCJW has opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Justice John Roberts, outspokenly supported Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and advocated a realignment of national priorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Snyder, a Connecticut resident, has spearheaded various public policy initiatives for three decades while championing pro-choice activism in her state. Moshenberg, who has worked for NCJW for 25 years, is considered one of the top public-affairs strategists among liberal non-profit groups. As President Bush’s latest Supreme Court nomination comes to dominate the public agenda, NCJW will be the address for Jewish women who want to make their voices heard.
The continuing growth of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement is one of the wonders of modern Judaism. Eleven years after the death of its charismatic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Lubavitch has firmly established itself as a full-scale wing of American Judaism and a major force worldwide. This past year saw a rapidly growing acceptance of the movement’s new role by other Jewish groups. In Russia, the Chabad-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities received acknowledgement of its dominant role in Jewish life when the American Jewish Congress signed a formal cooperation agreement. On American college campuses, the national Hillel foundation began encouraging its local chapters to reach out and cooperate with Chabad Houses — Hillel is on about 500 campuses, compared to nearly 200 for Chabad — rather than view them as competitors, or worse, oddballs. Managing it all with a light touch, like the head of a giant franchising corporation, is Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the steel-willed administrator once known as the rebbe’s “secretary.” Lubavitchers continue to insist they have no leader since Schneerson died, but Krinsky heads some of their most important institutions, including the crucial Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Lubavitch’s educational outreach organization. He sounded uncannily like a leader when he addressed an international convention of Lubavitch rabbis in Brooklyn this past January. “This is the work you do,” Krinsky told the emissaries. “You find the people who do not see, and you guide them and hold their hand as you lead them to safe ground.”
When community planners talk about “synagogue renewal,” as they often do these days, they usually have in mind an ideal congregation that draws crowds, speaks to the young, gives members a sense of community and leaves worshippers feeling spiritually moved. If pressed, they’re more than likely to name New York’s 1,800-family B’nai Jeshurun Congregation. The trouble is, everybody keeps trying to copy the BJ formula, but nobody has succeeded. That’s probably because nobody has figured out how to clone its moving spirit, Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon. An Argentine native, Matalon, now 49, began rabbinic studies at a Conservative seminary in Buenos Aires under Rabbi Marshall Meyer, the legendary human rights activist. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1986, Matalon went to work as Meyer’s assistant at BJ, then a fading congregation near collapse. They re-imagined the shul as a community of social activism and prayer services filled with music and dancing, and crowds began flocking in. When the shul’s ceiling collapsed in 1991, services were moved to a nearby church; by the time repairs were done, BJ was too big for its own building. Meyer died in 1993 and Matalon recruited an old friend, Rabbi Marcello Bronstein. But the growth hasn’t stopped. Sabbath services are now held in both the church and the shul; on High Holy Days they spill over into Lincoln Center. Matalon, meanwhile, has become a Big Apple fixture, lending his name to a host of liberal causes — often naively, critics say — while tending to BJ’s beehive of havurot, classes and social-action groups.
This past March 1, an estimated 120,000 Orthodox Jews gathered at 70 sites around the world, from Poland to Tel Aviv to New York’s Madison Square Garden, to celebrate the completion of Daf Yomi, the seven-and-a-half year cycle of daily Talmud study. The unprecedented event was not just a testament to the burgeoning of Orthodoxy; it was also a personal triumph for Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, 75, president of the event’s sponsoring organization, Agudath Israel of America. Perlow, grand rabbi of the Novominsker Hasidic dynasty, took over Agudath Israel in 1998 following the death of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who had led the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group for decades and was widely seen as irreplaceable. Over time Perlow has clearly made his mark. Far less engaged with the non-Orthodox world than his predecessor, he’s also less defensive. In 1999 he publicly praised the new traditionalist platform of Reform Judaism, something that would have been inconceivable under the old regime. The following year, amid a wave of financial scandals that some Orthodox spokesmen saw as a witch-hunt, Perlow openly called for ethical soul-searching. He’s also led efforts to improve treatment of the developmentally disabled; his own son suffers from severe Down’s Syndrome. A native New Yorker, Perlow taught high school before succeeding his father as Novominsker rebbe in 1976. He speaks with considerable religious authority; he holds dual chairs as Agudath Israel’s president and chairman of its Council of Torah Sages. Addressing the crowd on that frigid night at Madison Square Garden, Perlow said: “Snow and ice spread below, and all are vulnerable to its cold, but God issues his command, and they melt; he issues his command, and waters flow.” The crowd melted.
Conservative Judaism, once the community’s most populous denomination, has been locked in an internal debate for close to two decades between liberals pushing for greater inclusiveness and conservatives arguing for a return to basics. Jack Wertheimer, 57, historian, prolific author and provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the most visible and outspoken defender of Conservatism’s conservative wing. On issues ranging from the ordination of gay rabbis to acceptance of intermarried couples, Wertheimer has been unafraid to ruffle feathers, laying out his views in cool, intelligent prose. With the announced retirement next spring of the seminary’s chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the debate about the future of the movement has shifted into high gear, and so has Wertheimer. In recent months he has published essays in the Forward and Commentary arguing for in-marriage, conversion of non-Jewish spouses and a higher Jewish birthrate. Insider speculation is that Wertheimer is a leading candidate to succeed Schorsch as chancellor. His chances are hurt by his lack of rabbinic ordination, and some question whether he has the charisma to fill the chancellor’s secondary role of movement leader. Whoever takes up the reins of American Judaism’s centrist wing, Wertheimer is certain to have a pivotal voice for a long time to come.
ERIC YOFFIE DAVID ELLENSON
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has been the unchallenged leader of American Judaism’s largest denomination for more than a decade. Lately, though, he has been sharing the limelight with another charismatic figure: David Ellenson, the bearded, cherubic president of Reform Judaism’s four-campus rabbinic seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Yoffie, 58, heads the union of 900-plus Reform congregations, with its 1.5 million members; he sets a tone that emphasizes greater traditionalism in ritual along with Reform’s trademark political liberalism. Ellenson, also 58, is charged with minting the next generation of rabbis and cantors — the future field generals who will ultimately determine the success of Yoffie’s religious revolution. Yoffie was raised in a Reform household in Worcester, Mass., and worked in the movement’s New York headquarters for 16 years before becoming president in 1996. Ellenson was reared in an Orthodox home in Virginia, gravitated to Reform during college and was set on a quiet career as a scholar of Jewish intellectual history before being tapped to head the college in 2001. This month the spotlight will be on Yoffie at the URJ’s biennial convention in Houston, where, if tradition holds, he will launch a new series of congregational initiatives, setting the movement’s political and religious agenda for the next two years. Ellenson’s students will take center stage in the decades to come.
Pro-Israel students on campus made major news this year with their complaints about anti-Israel bias in the classroom. The man connecting all the dots behind the scenes was Wayne Firestone, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The battles reached their apogee at Columbia University, where a few students went to the media to broadcast grievances against allegedly anti-Israel professors. Firestone, 41, was never one for showy and divisive comments, but he worked quietly to support the students while also trying to reconcile warring parties. In addition to his work with right-wing students, Firestone has pushed to create more room on campus for pro-Israel left-wing students who have often felt shut out of the on-campus Jewish community. This fall he initiated a major campaign to move some of the focus on Israel from the political to the cultural, thereby providing a common ground for Jewish students. Firestone has become a favorite among the students who flock to Hillel’s Israel advocacy conferences. He was rewarded last month when Hillel named him its top American official, charged with overseeing a major strategic overhaul.
Liberals spend a lot of time these days bemoaning the Bush administration’s cuts in federal funding for the poor. William Rapfogel, longtime executive director of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, spends his time doing something about it. His agency, the only Jewish organization of its kind in the country, spends about $120 million per year, nearly all of it government money, on programs to serve the city’s estimated 220,000 poor Jews. One of the biggest nonprofits in New York, the council builds and operates low-income housing, gives out food and clothing, runs shelters for the homeless and mentally ill, supplies home heating assistance, health care and much more. A pragmatic Democrat who previously worked at the Orthodox Union and the American Jewish Congress, Rapfogel joined the council in 1992 and was a regular visitor to the Clinton White House. Since President Bush’s inauguration, he’s made it his business to stay on the guest list. Bush happily touts him and his agency as models of faith-based social-service delivery, and Rapfogel reciprocates by appearing with the president and talking up his programs. Most of what he has to say, however, is about the persistence of poverty and the need to attack it with determination, brains — and tax dollars.
It’s hard to run programs in the Jewish world that are both successful and free of controversy (especially with the Forward looking over your shoulder). But the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has done just that under the direction of its executive vice-president, Steven Schwager. Since taking over from Michael Schneider in 2002, Schwager, 57, has kept the storied, 90-year-old relief agency running seamlessly — not a small feat at a global operation with an annual budget of $240 million and close to a million mouths to feed. Founded in 1914 to help Jews in war-torn Poland, the JDC now works in 63 countries. It feeds hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews every day in the former Soviet Union, using funds provided by the Swiss banking settlement, and has been the provider of last resort for Argentina’s 200,000 Jews since that country’s economy collapsed in the late 1990s. The second-largest recipient of UJA-Federation funds nationwide, after the Jewish Agency for Israel, it’s increasingly seen by donors as the overseas agency of choice — due to the Israeli giant’s continuing woes as well as Schwager’s deft management. Still, Schwager has begun relying less on federation campaigns and building up his own fund-raising machine, more than doubling the agency’s size. And it keeps growing.
When cyber-cupid Joe Shapira founded his JDate Web site with a friend in 1997, his ambitions were relatively modest. A bachelor at the time, he was hoping to find a way to line up some dates for himself without suffering the indignity of a visit to a matchmaker. As it happened, many others were in the same boat. JDate today boasts more than 600,000 active members, plus a section for success stories numbering in the hundreds. The Beverly Hills-based Shapira, 52, who’s now married (reportedly not through JDate), may be doing more to further the cause of Jewish continuity than anyone else on earth. But he’s also built a successful business. JDate’s success encouraged Shapira, a Tel Aviv native, to launch a series of sister sites with names like BlackSinglesConnection.com and ChristianMingle.com, all grouped under the Spark Networks umbrella, which reported 2004 revenues of $65 million — 40% of it from JDate — and claims some 10 million members. That’s a lot of lonely hearts, but with Shapira’s help, love may just be a click away.
The executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Sokatch is at the center of a budding resurgence of Jewish liberalism in Los Angeles. His organization was born in 1999 when the national American Jewish Congress dissolved its Los Angeles chapter and the members refused to disband. Starting with 250 activists, the group has grown to a membership of 3,000 and a staff of 10; this year they opened a second office in San Francisco. Sokatch, 37, an attorney by training, has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes. This year he added a new program, recruiting Jewish activists to mentor youth offenders in an alternative-sentencing deal with the district attorney’s office. He’s now aiming to recruit entire synagogues to his social justice campaigns. And a campaign to help unionized hotel workers led to a national Jewish conference on union support in November.
Carole Solomon walked into a lions’ den — nothing to do with her beloved Lion of Judah UJA donors’ pin — when she was elected in 2003 to chair the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Israeli press accounts at the time indicated that the Philadelphia native was backed heavily by the agency’s Israeli management because she was seen as more amenable and less likely to scrutinize the operation than the candidate favored by the agency’s American funders, United Jewish Communities chairman Robert Goldberg. Solomon, a veteran UJA-Federation fund-raiser and professional volunteer, narrowly won the race, becoming the first woman to head the massive Israel-based social-service agency — and the first chairperson whose annual gift was less than $1 million. Not surprisingly, things have run smoothly on her watch. The agency has launched important new programs, including initiatives in the former Soviet Union as well as an admired think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, and Diaspora-Israeli friction has been minimal. But she hasn’t been a pushover. When one-time Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky made a bid for the agency’s top professional post last spring — prompting bitter objections because of his right-wing politics — Solomon had the courage to say no.
The feds might have taken their time responding to Hurricane Katrina, but the Jewish community was on the ground immediately, and few were more in the thick of things than Rabbi Stanton Zemek of Temple Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge, La., 80 miles north of New Orleans. When the storm hit, Zemek quickly turned his synagogue — one of two in Baton Rouge — into a processing center for the evacuees pouring out of the flood zone. Zemek had relatives come live with him so he could work around the clock, rounding up supplies and mapping out relocations. A few weeks after the storm, Zemek himself went into New Orleans to gather stranded Torah scrolls. Outsiders followed Zemek’s struggles on a Web log he set up, and he was singled out in a September 21 speech by President Bush reviewing Jewish responses to the hurricane. The communal relief efforts involved thousands of efforts like Zemek’s, and most went without any notice. Just days after Bush’s speech, though, Zemek experienced the other side when his synagogue was hit by Hurricane Rita, flooding the sanctuary and driving the congregation to a local Baptist church. Working just as hard to save his own shul, Zemek had his congregation back in its sanctuary soon after the High Holy Days.
In 2002, Bernstein made our list as one of the most dynamic, if most media-shy, Jewish “venture philanthropists.” As a string of recent successes attest, her influence has only grown in the past three years. Bernstein oversees not one but two major foundations. Both were started with the money of her late husband, investment whiz Sanford “Zalman” Bernstein: the Avi Chai Foundation, a major player in Jewish education, and the newer Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, said to reflect Mem Bernstein’s personal Jewish vision. Keren Keshet initiatives include a new Jewish high school in San Francisco and a program on constitutional government at Tel Aviv University. But its signature project is Nextbook, which promotes Jewish literature, culture and ideas through public programs and an acclaimed Web site. This year Nextbook launched its most ambitious project, the Jewish Encounters books series, which wittily matches boldface writers with Jewish topics. It debuted with works by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, writing on King David, and Harvard medical professor Sherwin Nuland on Maimonides. Future offerings include Rebecca Goldstein on Spinoza, Douglas Century on boxer Barney Ross and Ben Katchor on the dairy restaurant.
STEVEN NASATIR BARRY SHRAGE
Jewish philanthropic federations were largely absent from the major communal debates of the year as their national system continued struggling to stay relevant in a time of donor individualism. Amid the uncertainty, the successful federation heads in Boston and Chicago have come to represent the two approaches that are vying for the future of their national charitable network, which raises about $2 billion each year. Nasatir, the president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for a quarter-century, is a standout in the old school of hard-nosed fund raisers. He runs the country’s second-richest federation campaign — though his city has the third-biggest Jewish population, half the size of number-two Los Angeles — and he regularly pushes federations nationwide to stay focused on the nuts and bolts of their mission, including Israeli needs and social-service delivery. Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, has been pushing his federation and others to find innovative answers to big questions about religious identity and the Jewish future. He has made some inroads outside Boston — his acclaimed adult Jewish literacy program, Me’ah, is now being reproduced in other cities — but most leaders of federations and their national organization, United Jewish Communities, seem to be taking their cues from Nasatir. Still, the debate is not over, and ultimately it will shape the way hundreds of millions of communal dollars are spent each year.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, 36, is among the cadre of Jewish spiritual and communal leaders who are leading the way in developing a new generation of Jewish liberal activists. A former associate Jewish chaplain at Columbia University and Barnard College, she was appointed this year to be program director for Jewish life and values at one of the world’s wealthiest Jewish family foundations, the Nathan Cummings Foundation. She’s expected to shift the foundation’s emphasis away from the heavily spiritual focus of her predecessor, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, and move it toward greater involvement in political and social activism. She’s got a strong track record in the field: While at Columbia, she founded the Columbia/Barnard Tzedek Hillel, a center for community service and advocacy work. The center offers spring-break volunteer opportunities and internships with nonprofits. A Reform rabbi and an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Rosenn is also a founding board member of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, which recruits cohorts of 20-somethings to live and learn together while working to fight urban poverty (and is run by her husband, Rabbi David Rosenn).
In the five years since the death of her oilman husband, Charles, Lynn Schusterman has emerged as one of the nation’s savviest and most generous funders of Jewish education. Her Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation gives away close to $10 million a year — most of it to Jewish causes, the rest to culture and welfare in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. She’s a major supporter of Reform Judaism, particularly its overseas outreach efforts; she gives huge gifts to Jewish day schools and synagogue renewal, and she’s passionate about programs for girls. For all that, her true passion is reaching Jewish teenagers, reflected in the two organizations that get the biggest chunk of her attention and largess each year: Birthright Israel, which she helped found, and Hillel, which named its international headquarters after the Schustermans. But what makes Schusterman’s philanthropy unique is the way she gives. Every gift has her personal stamp, reflecting her own commitments and beliefs. And yet, in contrast to her fellow mega-donors, she doesn’t presume to be an expert and set up a new organization every time she has a new idea. Her philanthropy is a throwback to an earlier era, when giving was a respectful partnership between donor and professional.
If the world of Jewish philanthropy seems ever more dominated by a handful of “mega-donors” who run their own projects instead of funding those of others, much of the blame — or credit — belongs to Leslie Wexner. The Ohio retailing mogul, founder and CEO of the Limited Brands Corp. — which includes such chains as The Limited and Victoria’s Secret — began his philanthropic journey with the founding in 1984 of The Wexner Foundation, which funds and operates a network of big-ticket educational programs. One, the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, offers scholarships and mentoring to graduate students preparing for careers in Jewish service. Another, the Wexner-Israel Fellowship Program, brings midcareer Israeli public officials for a yearlong master’s program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Perhaps the best known, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, offers a free two-year course of weekly Jewish study to under-40s tagged as future lay leaders. Other mega-donors, including Michael Steinhardt and brothers Charles and Edgar Bronfman, have followed in Wexner’s footsteps and created a host of their own programs, including Birthright Israel and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. But Wexner, 68, keeps leading the pack; this year he launched a new initiative with Detroit philanthropists William and Karen Davidson to expand the graduate fellowship to at least 20 scholars per year through the creation of 10 Davidson Scholarships for students preparing for careers in Jewish education and leadership.
JESSICA COEN AND JESSE OXFELD
Gawker.com may describe itself officially as “the source for daily Manhattan media news and gossip,” but read deeper and you’ll quickly figure out that Jews, media and sex — which the Web site’s editors call “the Holy Trinity of our existence” — is a more accurate list of its preoccupations. One of the cheekiest and most popular of the Web logs that are coming to dominate the new media, Gawker officially bills itself as merely a clearinghouse for gossip. But it has morphed from an addicts’ indulgence into a pluckily legitimate voice in media criticism — and a serious scoop machine. Not to mention one with a distinctly Yiddish accent. Currently run by co-editors Jessica Coen, 25, and Jesse Oxfeld, 29, the site courses with Jewish flavor, ridiculing old canards about Jews and the media even as it relishes them. “Next week’s New York [magazine] wonders whether, as a recent scientific study purported to prove, Jews really are smarter,” an entry right after Yom Kippur stated. “All we’ll say: We had a day off yesterday, and we ate pounds of excellent lox for dinner. You goyim did not. QED.” Another time, the editors said “yisgadal v’yiskadash” over a Conde Nast employee’s firing. But while Oxfeld and Coen never would admit it, their Jewishness is more than just latkes and Manischewitz. Witness their recent skewering of the Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology, which was auctioning off a lunch with conservative News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch — for a rumored reserve price of $50,000. “It’s pricey, yes. But think how much fun it will be to discuss JCT with Murdoch, and to share in his passion for those well-known Jewish traditions, like social responsibility and reasoned debate and progressive ideals.”
In a year that saw new books by nearly all the boldface names of Jewish literature — Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Francine Prose and even relative newcomers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss — one might assume that the publishing houses have our particular brand of prose taken care of. But Carolyn Hessel, executive director of the Jewish Book Council, remains one of the most powerful arbiters of Jewish literature in the United States. The council coordinates some 70 Jewish book fairs at community centers nationwide and oversees the National Jewish Book Awards. Insiders said Hessel could make or break a book by deciding which writers to recommend for appearances at key fairs. Certainly the buzz of a JCC tour can play a big role in jumpstarting an author’s career, as recent beneficiaries Nathan Englander and Foer might attest. Hessel, who previously served at the Jewish Education Service of North America, is resolute in 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 last year. “And I define ‘Jewish interest’ in the broadest terms.”
Philip Roth appeared on this list last year, partly because of his what-if counter-historical novel, “The Plot Against America.” At the time, we noted that we could conceivably include him every year, simply by virtue of past accomplishment. But we needn’t rely on past laurels with this writer, who has proved not only to be one of the most distinctive, estimable voices in contemporary literature but also one of the most prolific. This year, the Library of America anthologized Roth’s early novels, solidifying an already steady place in the American literary canon. And it was recently announced that Roth’s 27th book, titled “Everyman,” will be published in May 2006. In a Forward review of the Library of America anthology, Mark Oppenheimer pointed up Roth’s “startlingly rare accomplishment”: “One man, one writer, has written the archetypal treatment of postwar suburban Jewry (‘Goodbye, Columbus’); the book that invented, along with Woody Allen’s movies, the modern stereotype of the neurotic Jew (‘Portnoy’s Complaint’); the seminal novel about the lives of struggling grad students in dissertation purgatory (‘Letting Go’)… the classic investigation of the American Jew’s relationship to Israel (‘Operation Shylock: A Confession’)… and the most terrifying depiction of antisemitism in America (‘The Plot Against America’).” With a list like that, Roth, 72, certainly has earned his spot on this one.
Few rabbis in Jewish history have opened more doors to serious Torah and Talmud study than Nosson Scherman, 71, founding editor of Mesorah Publications and general editor of its groundbreaking ArtScroll series. A native of Newark, N.J., Scherman was serving as principal of a yeshiva in Brooklyn in 1976 when he helped a colleague publish a translation and commentary on the Book of Esther. He assumed it would be a “one-shot thing,” but the first edition sold out — and Scherman entered the publishing business full time. Since then, more than 700 works have been released under the auspices of Mesorah and ArtScroll. A Torah commentary edited by Scherman has sold more than 300,000 copies. This year, a team of dozens of scholars under his leadership completed ArtScroll’s most ambitious project yet: a 73-volume, annotated English translation of the Talmud. Critics said that the new Talmud edition, like most other ArtScroll publications, is replete with apologetics and relies uncritically on narrowly traditionalist sources. But even critics have conceded that ArtScroll’s 15-year, $20 million Talmud project is a design and a scholarly masterpiece. It’s made the Talmud, a seminal but largely esoteric compilation of ancient rabbinic teachings, accessible to Jews of all denominational stripes.
Standup comic Sarah Silverman has one of the dirtiest mouths in an industry where prurience and scatology are considered extreme sports. (One of her signature tasteless lines: “I was raped by a doctor — which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”) Now 34, Silverman broke through as a writer and featured player on “Saturday Night Live” during the 1993-1994 season. Her brief tenure included a memorable account of her sister’s wedding to publisher and Soviet Jewry activist Yossi Abramowitz: “I guess the most important event of this past week was, of course, the wedding of my sister, Susan Silverman, to Yosef Abramowitz. It was a really neat wedding, too, you know, ’cause they took each other’s last names and hyphenated it. So now my sister’s name is Susan Silverman-Abramowitz. But they’re thinking of shortening it to just ‘Jews.’” Silverman went on to bit parts in “Seinfeld” and “The Larry Sanders Show” and successful film roles in “There’s Something About Mary” (1998) and “The School of Rock” (2003) — not to mention her hilarious role as Hadassah Guberman, one of the puppet characters on Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers.” Even for a notably successful comic, 2005 has been a banner year; it included a star turn in “The Aristocrats,” the comedy insiders’ film about a dirty joke; a profile in The New Yorker, and, this month, the release of “Jesus Is Magic,” a movie based on an off-Broadway stand-up show she did a few years ago.
It hasn’t been an easy year for old-fashioned news anchors and mainstream news organizations, what with Rather, Brokaw and Jennings all departed. On the other hand, the stature of Jon Stewart, 42, host of the satirical news program “The Daily Show,” just keeps growing. Comedy Central’s hit show was expected to fade after the 2004 election; instead it saw a 20% ratings boost and inspired a spin-off and a best-selling book. Stewart has established himself as the king of “fake news,” while embracing an astonishingly unabashed Jewish persona. Unlike many older Jewish comics, Stewart wears his ethnicity easily, without defensiveness or self-deprecation. Last month, as one of many examples, he aired a clip of former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson publicly charging that American foreign policy was being run by a Dick Cheney-Donald Rumsfeld “cabal”; Stewart then quipped that it was “refreshing” to hear the word “cabal” without having it “follow the word ‘Jewish.’” Perhaps the surest sign of Stewart’s influence came as a result of his guest appearance on the CNN program “Crossfire,” where he chided hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for “political hackery” that was “hurting America.” Once the dust settled, it was Stewart who had the last laugh: CNN canceled “Crossfire” in January.