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THE TOP 5

When President Bush convened 19 heads of international relief agencies in January to discuss the South Asia tsunami disaster, Ruth Messinger represented the Jewish community. Bush told the gathering that he was impressed by the way her American Jewish World Service had reached the scene with fishing boats to get survivors working again — empowering them and helping break down prejudice. The president was still talking about it a month later at the annual White House prayer breakfast, where he cited the world service as an example of religious groups that make a difference. Bush isn’t the only one talking. Since taking over the world service in 1998, the former New York City politician has turned what was once a smallish volunteer organization into a powerhouse in international humanitarian affairs. Never was that more evident than this year. As natural and man-made disasters proliferated, Messinger and her agency seemed to be everywhere, raising funds; recruiting volunteers for development, health and human rights projects on four continents, and continuing to sound the alarm on genocide in Darfur. The very week that Messinger visited the White House, her agency announced a campaign, backed by 40 religious groups, to press for international debt relief for the poorest nations in Africa — something Bush opposed but would grudgingly accept by midyear. The Forward once contrasted the world service with older Jewish agencies by calling it an “upstart,” but with its global reach, towering reputation and presidential endorsement, Messinger’s outfit clearly has joined the major leagues.

Steven Spielberg

At 59, Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history. He’s directed or produced no fewer than 10 of the 50 top-grossing films of all time, including such blockbusters as “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” Unlike most fellow hit-makers, he’s regarded as a thoughtful artist, tackling tough topics in films like “Amistad” and “The Color Purple.” His 1993 epic on the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List,” instantly turned him into one of the world’s most recognizable spokesmen for Judaism, but he declined the role, shunning speeches and interviews. Instead he became a force behind the scenes, pouring the film’s profits into charities he created, including the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an oral history archive, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, which funds Jewish causes. Given his visibility, observers were wondering recently why Spielberg would risk his popularity by plunging into Middle East controversy, but he’s doing it in his upcoming film, “Munich.” A story of Israeli agents sent to assassinate Palestinian terrorists after the 1972 Olympic massacre, the film was controversial even before its scheduled December 23 release. The screenplay, by leftist playwright Tony Kushner, is based on a disputed memoir that depicts Israeli agents conflicted about their mission. “By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today,” the filmmaker said. Spielberg recently announced that his Shoah Foundation would be moving to the University of Southern California. “Ten years from now, I see it as the hub of a wheel with many spokes,” he told reporters. “We would love to find lines of connectivity from the events in Rwanda to the events at Auschwitz.”

James Wolfensohn

After two successful five-year terms at the helm of the World Bank, during which he managed to overhaul the global lender and refocus it on fighting poverty, there were those who thought the colorful Australian-born banker-diplomat, 72, finally would wrap up his eventful carrier and enjoy retirement. But James Wolfensohn wasn’t done; in April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced his appointment as special envoy of the international Middle East Quartet, charged with overseeing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and with reviving the Palestinian economy. With his trademark white mane, impish smile and outspoken ways, Wolfensohn plunged into the diplomatic maelstrom. Since then he’s managed to ruffle feathers on all sides, criticizing Israelis and Palestinians alike for dragging their feet on agreements. His diplomacy drew world attention in August, when he raised $14 million from Jewish donors (including $500,000 of his own money) to buy out the Gaza settlers’ hothouses and pass them to the Palestinians. The son of a struggling businessman, Wolfensohn left Australia in 1956 as a member of the Olympic fencing team, attended Harvard Business School and then made a fortune as a Wall Street investment banker. His philanthropy is legendary, particularly to the arts — he’s a past chairman of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center — and to Jewish causes, ranging from the American Jewish World Service to the Jewish Theological Seminary (where his wife, Elaine, is a board member), Adin Steinsaltz’s Aleph Society and Long Island Jewish Hospital (his family foundation lists “Jewish federated giving programs” as one of its priorities). With his diplomatic mandate due to expire in December, it was announced last week that Wolfensohn would go to work at Citigroup but will “continue to be involved in the months ahead” in Middle East diplomacy.

Arlen Specter

America’s most influential Jewish lawmaker had a rough year. At 75, the moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania is combating cancer and his own party’s conservative wing, and he seems to be doing well on both fronts. This past January, two weeks before finding out that he has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he overcame ferocious opposition from the religious right to win the chairmanship of the powerful Judiciary Committee. That puts him at the center of the judicial confirmation process. Conservatives didn’t want to see a pro-choice moderate who supports stem-cell research holding the reins. Specter was seated as chairman only after he pledged not to block judicial nominees who oppose abortions. He alienated conservatives further when he refused to support the Senate Republican leadership’s so-called “nuclear option,” a plan to ban the use of filibusters to block confirmation votes. A son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Russia, whose father was a tailor and ran a junkyard in Kansas, Specter is often described as one of America’s most durable and resilient politicians, withstanding many close races with Democratic challengers who view him as perpetually vulnerable. In his last race in 2004, he won support from labor and prominent liberals to beat back a conservative primary challenger. He has already survived a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery, and doctors give him a 70% chance of winning his fight against lymphoma. But in this politically polarized Congress, his chances of serving successfully as an effective bridge between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals — a role he says he tries to assume — seem a good deal slimmer.

Matisyahu

Equal parts reggae star, rapper and Hasidic cantor, Matisyahu is one of the biggest pop music phenomena of the past year, and the most unlikely. Virtually unknown just a year ago, the Lubavitcher singing sensation now headlines at some of the nation’s biggest concert venues. Later this month he heads for gigs in Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin. The singer, 26, whose given name is Matthew Miller, was born in a nonobservant Jewish home in suburban Philadelphia and raised in White Plains, N.Y. After dropping out of high school at 17 and following Phish to the West Coast, he found his way into the famous Carlebach Synagogue in New York City and began a spiritual journey that ended up in the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community of Brooklyn. Simultaneously he pursued a music career. He now has a following that stretches all the way from Crown Heights to the pages of the “beer and babes” magazine FHM; his television appearances include “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Last Call With Carson Daly.” According to his Web site, Miller combines the sounds of Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach. His songs, with titles like “Lord Raise Me Up” and “King Without a Crown,” speak of spiritual hunger in biblically inflected tones; set to reggae beats, they become supple, airy and sublime.

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