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Forward 50

The past year has been a time of passionate, wrenching divisions within America and across the globe. The world has been unsettled in a way not seen since the 1930s, though comparisons are, as Philip Roth reminds us with his new masterpiece, always imperfect and often misleading.

And not since the 1930s have the affairs and passions of the Jews loomed so large in the world’s troubled imaginings. The future of the Middle East, Jihad and Muslim rage, images of Jewish cabals in Washington, debates over immigration, tolerance of religious minorities and even the old question of who killed Jesus. It has started to seem, at times, as though every bugbear that might frighten us has been thrown onto the table at once.

There is at least one essential difference between now and the 1930s. In the Nazi era, Jews were helpless pawns, unable to do anything but watch as forces of history gathered against them. Today Jews are not just plot devices but central players in nearly every act of the drama, on all sides.

Not surprisingly, when we compiled this year’s annual Forward 50 list of the most influential members of the American Jewish community, we found it dominated by individuals who are playing lead roles in the great struggles of the day, as policy-makers, theoreticians, activists and gadflies. Through much of this year, their doings seemed almost to crowd out the more traditional concerns of the community, from education to charity. But one look past the surface shows that the streets of Jewish America are bubbling with new energy and spirit.

Reflecting the outsize role of Jewish concerns on the world agenda, we’ve added a new category we call Public Square, featuring public officials whose roles — running a Holocaust museum, dividing Holocaust-era assets — are at once governmental and explicitly Jewish.

This year’s Forward 50 actually contains 51 entries, to make room for someone who is not Jewish but might well be the world’s most famous practitioner of Judaism — the pop singer Madonna. To include her on a list of prominent Jews would have been false, but to leave her off would have been no less misleading.

The Forward 50 is not based on a scientific survey or on a democratic election. Names have been suggested by readers and by our own staff. Each year’s compilation is a journalistic effort to record some of the trends and events in American Jewish life in the year just ended and to illuminate some of the individuals likely to be in the news in the year ahead.

Membership in the 50 doesn’t mean 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 of them have put their energies into the traditional framework of Jewish community life, but all of them have consciously pursued Jewish activism as they understood it, and all of them have left a mark.

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