RUTH BADER GINSBURG
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared in October before the United Jewish Communities’s annual Lion of Judah conference and talked about the Jewish roots of her legal philosophy, she wasn’t breaking new ground. Ginsburg, 71, has spoken out regularly on her views of the Jewish legal tradition since she was named to the Supreme Court by former President Bill Clinton in 1993, becoming the second woman and the sixth Jew to serve on the high court. Carrying on a tradition established by Justices Louis Brandeis and Arthur Goldberg before her, she has been unabashed in acknowledging her debt to Jewish values, in the process becoming one of the nation’s most visible symbols of Jewish pride. Among the court’s most liberal members, she has been a firm defender of civil liberties during the Bush years. Perhaps with an eye to posterity, she’s stepped up her Jewish activism in the past year, particularly in print, with an essay in the Forward (her second) and in “I Am a Jew,” the memorial volume published in memory of slain journalist Daniel Pearl. Before joining the high court, Brooklyn-born Ginsburg was a law professor at Columbia University and a leader in the women’s rights divisions of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress. For all that, her most important legacy probably lies ahead of her; all her powers of reason and persuasion will be put to the test in the next four years as she prepares to defend the court’s embattled liberal wing during President Bush’s second term.
HOWARD KOHR AND BERNICE MANOCHERIAN
This year has truly been the best and the worst of times for Bernice Manocherian, 62, and Howard Kohr, 48, respectively president and executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In May the duo shared the dais at their annual policy conference with President Bush, only the second president to appear before the powerful pro-Israel lobby. As 5,000 delegates cheered, Bush praised Aipac for “serving the cause of America,” said its work is “more vital than ever” and thanked it for electing, in Manocherian, “a president I can kiss.” But in late August, startling reports were leaked to the media that the FBI was investigating two Aipac officials on suspicion of illegally transferring documents from a Pentagon analyst to Israeli diplomats. The allegations, which in some versions included espionage, raised old images of American Jewish dual loyalty, and the media had a field day. By November, however, the story had largely faded from view, with no sign from the Justice Department that any indictments were in the works. Aipac was as active as ever on the congressional lobbying front, and following a September letter to members from Kohr and Manocherian asking for a “special, additional contribution” to get through the crisis, the organization appeared likely to finish the year financially stronger than ever. According to colleagues, Kohr summed up the experience with the observation that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
After six years as president of the perennially struggling American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, 58, born in a postwar displaced persons camp, stepped aside this year to become chairman of the board — and saw his influence and visibility soar. His hard-line stance on French antisemitism and his alliance with a grass-roots French Jewish activist group, which irritated mainstream Jewish leaders in Paris and ruffled more than a few diplomatic feathers, were beginning to pay off in changed policies, and they marked deference from the Quai D’Orsay. His friendship with President Bush and easy access to the White House were becoming hard to ignore, even among critics of his pragmatic, anti-ideological style. He had a misstep this summer with the naming of an Israeli diplomat as CEO of the American Jewish Congress, which turned out to violate Israeli law. Still, his influence is certain to grow, whether or not he is chosen next spring to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as insiders suggest.
There is an argument to be made that novelist Philip Roth should have been on this list every year since 1959, when he burst onto the literary scene with “Goodbye, Columbus.” Sadly, we have been publishing the Forward 50 for barely a decade, while Roth has been the unofficial spokesman for the American Jewish mind for close to a half-century. But even for the prodigiously talented and much-praised Roth, his latest offering, “The Plot Against America,” seems a milestone. Venturing into the new territory of “what if” counter-history, Roth imagines an America in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president in 1940, keeps America out of World War II and begins singling out the Jews as a national threat. Despite Roth’s public demurrals that “The Plot” shouldn’t be read as an allegory for today’s political climate, it’s hard not to draw parallels, beginning with the accusations of Jewish power and war-mongering that have spread around the globe since the buildup to war in Iraq. Most striking is the book’s ultimate warning: that fascism can spread quickly and widely and that what is most American about America is its resistance to it. Roth’s choice of Jews as the vehicle for this lesson might seem obvious — who else would Roth write about? — but for many it’s a powerful testament to our place in this country. “Can the Great American Novel be about Jews?” our reviewer asked. “Why not? The Great Irish Novel was.”
He sits atop The New York Times’s best-seller list with “America (The Book).” His Emmy Award-winning satirical news program, “The Daily Show” on cable’s Comedy Central, has become the top-rated cable show among 18-to-34-year-olds, topping 2.4 million viewers after the presidential debates. But the raw numbers don’t show the full influence of this Walter Cronkite of fake news, born 41 years ago as Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz. Polls show that his program has become one of the main sources of political information for the young. During the primary campaigns, every Democratic presidential contender took a turn on his interview couch, fielding his serious questions and sarcastic jabs while jockeying for the youth vote. Republicans endure his barbs, as well. When he asked neoconservative Bill Kristol, right after the election, if the Christian right’s claims to heaven weren’t “elitist,” Kristol told him to “ask one of your Christian guests. We Jews have our own elitism — we believe we’re the chosen people.” Stewart’s reply: “I’m a Jew who believes in a good bagel buffet.” His comment on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was a mock apology: “Sorry — we didn’t know he was the Christ.” But there is seriousness on the set: His staff took an evening last spring to hold a fund raiser for Israeli terrorism victims. Stewart himself announced on election night that he would spend Bush’s second term “huddled” in the blue states, “frankly weeping.” But then he assured viewers that the administration will provide him with plenty of material to make them laugh.
This was supposed to be Edgar Bronfman’s last year as president of the World Jewish Congress. At age 75, after a quarter-century at the helm, the billionaire beverage baron was ready to retire. He changed his mind in September and decided to run for a sixth term when his rivals seemed too happy to see him go. Conservatives within the organization, led by the Jerusalem-based senior vice-president Isi Leibler, began calling for Bronfman’s head a year ago after he publicly attacked Israel’s security fence in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. A protracted feud developed, laced with allegations of financial impropriety; it ended this fall when the organization’s board stripped Leibler of most of his authority. Even in victory, though, Bronfman continues to throw verbal bombs, most recently in an October interview in which he called Jewish opposition to intermarriage “racist.” But with his boundless energy and generosity — in addition to WJC, he is a top donor to Hillel, Aipac and other causes — he will cast a large shadow for a long time to come.
It surely says something about the standing of Jews in the mind of the West when America’s best-known battler against antisemitism speaks out on a movie with suspected anti-Jewish overtones and ends up himself being accused of waging a smear campaign to fatten his own agency’s coffers. That’s pretty much what happened last year to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, when he tried — first in a private letter, then in public interviews — to engage Mel Gibson on his upcoming “The Passion of the Christ.” Though fears of a post-“Passion” wave of antisemitism proved unfounded, Foxman’s critiques were generally measured and on target; his missteps were tactical, letting himself be outmaneuvered as Gibson cannily played the martyred artist fighting for free expression. Still, a year later the “Passion” furor is long past and Foxman, 64, is more indispensable than ever. This summer he deftly mobilized American Jewish support for Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, speaking out early and forcefully against a rising tide of anti-Sharon incitement. When the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations appeared unwilling to take sides on Sharon’s plan, Foxman flexed some muscle and forced a vote that put the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups on record in favor. Love him or hate him, Foxman remains a rarity in the Jewish organizational world, a genuine leader who’s ready to stand up and suffer the arrows of a public fight, mostly for the better.
Some of Old Europe’s top leaders turned out in Brussels in February for the launch of the Transatlantic Institute, a combination think tank and lobby opened by the American Jewish Committee in the capital city of the European Union. It’s part of the continuing strategy of David Harris, executive director of AJCommittee since 1990, for making his agency an essential voice of reason in the middle of the storm. Some observers warned that the new institute could be taken as another example of American bullying, but smart insiders said the response would be just the opposite: Given the shouting that typically passes for transatlantic relations these days, Harris’s trademark understatement sets him apart and makes him and his organization a favorite address for Europeans trying to figure what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. Harris doesn’t pull punches; he’s been known as a hawk on antisemitism since his days as a Soviet Jewry activist in the 1970s and 1980s. He has made his organization one of the key Jewish resources for no-nonsense terrorism research. But with his command of languages and his diplomatic style, he’s able to convey American Jewish concerns abroad without stirring resentment.
RABBI MARVIN HIER
As an Orthodox rabbi with a few Oscars to his credit, Hier was uniquely qualified to weigh in when “The Passion of the Christ” was released in February — and he did, emerging as one of the film’s most-quoted Jewish critics. Since setting up shop in Los Angeles three decades ago, Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has consistently been one of organized Judaism’s most important Hollywood ambassadors, a distinction that helped turn him into Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s favorite rabbi. The Governator was by Hier’s side this spring when the rabbi broke ground on the Wiesenthal Center’s new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. The $200 million, Frank Gehry-designed project is slated for completion in 2007. If Schwarzenegger’s allies ever succeed in amending the Constitution so that the foreign-born movie star can run for president, Hier may have more access to the White House than any Jewish communal leader in American history.
MALCOLM HOENLEIN AND JAMES TISCH
This duo wields influence in Washington, Jerusalem and foreign capitals across the world as they lead the community’s main pro-Israel umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, 60, the organization’s staff director since 1986, is the man behind the curtain, a master at leveraging the appearance of power and influence. Tisch, 51, the organization’s lay chairman, is a highly influential philanthropist and scion of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. Both men drew heat this year for failing to secure a clear, timely statement of support from the 52-member conference for the disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon before it was approved by the Knesset. In the end, though, few private citizens are more influential on American policy in the Middle East.
For more than a decade, since the start of the Oslo peace process, Morton Klein, 57, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, has been the most vocal and effective critic of Israeli and American efforts to broker a two-state solution. Under his leadership, the ZOA has become a player on Capitol Hill, with a dependable stable of lawmakers willing to take Klein’s calls and to sign on to his legislative initiatives. His message is clear and consistent: Any territorial concession to the Palestinians represents a victory for terrorism and will only spark more attacks on Israeli civilians and Western targets. The ZOA recently issued a statement accusing the Knesset of “appeasement” after the Israeli parliament endorsed Sharon’s Gaza pullout plan. But the real question is whether Klein and his minions will be content to fire off zesty press releases, or take the fight to Congress in the hopes of preventing the use of American aid to help implement the Israeli pullout from Gaza and resettle Jewish residents of the territories.
STEVE RABINOWITZ AND MATT DORF
In an era dominated by image makers and message crafters, Rabinowitz, 47, and Dorf, 34, are the dominant public-relations force in the Jewish community. Their client list includes the congregational arms of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements; the United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of the local Jewish charitable federations in North America, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative advocacy body that brings together 123 local Jewish communities and 13 national organizations. Both men swing left politically: Rabinowitz served in the Clinton White House and remains a Democratic strategist; Dorf pushed a slew of liberal causes in his stint as the Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress and was tapped by Howard Dean to help the presidential candidate shore up his standing with Jewish voters. It should come as no surprise that one client, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, took the lead in calling on Conservative rabbis to reconsider the movement’s ban on ordaining gays and lesbians, and another, the JCPA, was out front in launching a spirited attack on President Bush’s tax-cutting policies.
This has not been a good year for Jewish liberals, with wars in Israel and Iraq driving the public discourse of the Jewish community ever further to the right. But Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has not given up the fight to keep an expansive Jewish social agenda front and center. In February she won approval from her council, which unites a dozen major national Jewish agencies and 123 local community councils, for a resolution criticizing the Bush administration’s tax cuts. In June she criticized the Supreme Court for validating parochial-school vouchers. Her organization’s “Confronting Poverty Initiative” provides local communities with weekly updates about threats to the poorest Americans. Rosenthal and her organization have faced serious flack from other Jewish groups — including some of her own member-agencies — for taking on issues with no obvious Jewish communal stake. Partly in response, Rosenthal has adapted her organization to focus more on local communities, helping them to coordinate their Israel advocacy and other programs. But she hasn’t backed away from national policy issues. As the representative of 123 local Jewish community councils and a dozen of the largest national groups, she leads what is perhaps the most broadly democratic Jewish organization, and she seems to take it as a mandate to speak for what many see as a silent Jewish majority.
RABBI ERIC YOFFIE
Standing astride the world’s largest synagogue movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, 57, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, continues to cast a giant shadow over the religious, cultural and political life of American Jewry.
On a slew of domestic and foreign policy fronts, he remains a staunch and vocal liberal. Increasingly, however, he’s leading his movement on a centrist course, in line with his vision of Reform as the center of the community rather than its left wing. He led the Jewish coalition that confronted the Presbyterian Church (USA) on its plans to divest from Israel. He’s planted himself pragmatically behind Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and his disengagement plan, calling himself a “dove for Sharon.” He’s cautiously followed the same tack at home, looking for opportunities to praise the Bush administration — for speaking out on Darfur, cooperating with Europe or enhancing the rights of capital defendants — rather than lead his flock into the wilderness.
Judah Gribetz was forced into a Solomonic role, though the ancient king might have had a slightly easier job. Since being appointed by a federal judge in 1999 to be the special master overseeing distribution of the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement, the 75-year-old attorney has had to adjudicate between the competing needs of different groups of aging Holocaust survivors, from Florida to Ukraine. Last winter he sifted through applications from nearly 100 groups around the world to determine how any unclaimed Swiss funds would be spent. In the end, he stuck by his earlier recommendation that most unclaimed funds go to destitute survivors in the former Soviet Union. This was not received kindly by many American and Israeli survivor groups, and at a hearing in April, Gribetz heard from a line of survivors who felt shortchanged by his decision. Even the Israeli government submitted a report denouncing the “Gribetz recommendations.” But Gribetz looked beyond the most vocal constituencies and gave voice to a Jewish population — those who stayed behind in Ukraine and Belarus — that had been overlooked for years by world Jewish councils. Dealing with a fractious community is nothing new for Gribetz, a onetime president of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and former deputy mayor of the Big Apple. A master of the poker face, Gribetz has never publicly discussed the strain of his work, providing a model of what it means to stand by your principles despite the slings and arrows.
RABBI SHARON BROUS
If Conservative Judaism ever reclaims its status as the country’s largest Jewish denomination, it will be in large part thanks to the work of rabbis like Sharon Brous. A native of New Jersey transplanted to Southern California, Brous, 30, is one of the most dynamic religious leaders to be ordained in recent years by the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently at work building Ikar, a new, vibrant Los Angeles congregation that seeks to serve as a meeting place for religiously observant non-Orthodox Jews and Jews who have long been alienated from synagogue life. In part, the new community can be seen as an extension of her two years working at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue known as B.J. and that boasts an innovative mix of music and social action. Brous’s congregation, however, offers a more traditional style of worship (no electric instruments, for example) and greater emphasis on text study. While she is a loyal heir to the Conservative movement’s commitment to an evolving canon of rabbinic law, she combines this traditionalism with a truly progressive sense that Judaism’s purpose is to inspire its followers to create a better world for all humanity. The word Conservative does not appear on the Ikar Web site, but the congregation represents a compelling model for helping to reinvigorate a proud, but sluggish and shrinking, synagogue movement.
RABBI DAVID ELLENSON
Three years after he reluctantly gave up the quiet life of an academic to accept the presidency of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson has emerged as a strong leader, a tireless fund raiser and a powerful voice within Reform Judaism for the issues he has long championed, including traditionalism and interdenominational dialogue. Ellenson, 57, the eighth president in the college’s 125-year history, has made priorities of strengthening the institution’s ties to Israel and building the endowment. Raised in an Orthodox home in Virginia, ordained at HUC’s New York school in 1977, Ellenson was known chiefly as a scholar of modern Jewish intellectual history, specializing in the development of religious denominationalism over the last two centuries. His expertise serves him well in his new job; he’s on good terms with leaders of other movements, and he was the only non-Orthodox rabbi invited to address a recent conference of rabbis and Catholic cardinals. And research has not stopped. His latest book, “After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity,” published by HUC, came out only a month ago.
Since her appearance in 1973 as keynote speaker at what was known as the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, Blu Greenberg has become the towering figure in the tidal wave that is Jewish religious feminism. She’s published a half-dozen books of prose and poetry, lectures tirelessly, and serves on countless boards from the Covenant Foundation and the Dialogue Project to the Jewish Book Council. The organization she founded around her kitchen table in 1997, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, now draws thousands to its biennial conference, leading some observers to describe it as the biggest and most important gathering in the embattled world of Modern Orthodoxy. This year she stirred yet another uproar when she announced at the JOFA conference that the ordination of women Orthodox rabbis is “just around the corner” and that they will be accepted in the Modern Orthodox community within 15 or 20 years. Her organization hasn’t endorsed her position, but she’s told the Forward that by “making it an open conversation in the Orthodox community, it is giving it a measure of support.”
REBBETZIN ESTHER JUNGREIS
Talmudist, lecturer, columnist and matchmaker, Rebbetzin Jungreis added a new listing to her re´sume´this year: political activist. While on tour, pushing a Hungarian translation of her latest book, “A Committed Marriage,” she got a call from the Republican National Committee asking if she would offer the closing benediction at their convention. She did, and spent the next two months stumping for the president’s re-election. Jungreis, 68, a native of Hungary and a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, is the founder of Hineni, an education and outreach program designed to bring together young single Jews. And bring them together she has: Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion have been known to draw as many as 2,000 spiritually hungry souls. It should come as little surprise that Jungreis, whose speaking style owes as much to Billy Graham as it does to the Talmud, would be appealing to the GOP. And the feelings seem to be mutual. At the convention, Jungreis invoked the Holocaust, as she often does, and suggested that the disaster might have been averted “if a man like President George W. Bush had been at the helm.”
RABBI YEHUDA KRINSKY
Ten years after the death of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, folks have stopped asking whether his Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement will survive or hold together — or, for that matter, who will lead it. Lubavitch is stronger than ever, despite the absence of a holy man at the helm, thanks in no small part to the steady hand of the man who quietly took over the reins of the movement’s central coordinating institutions — Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky. Known for years as the unassuming secretary at Schneerson’s elbow, Krinsky has run the movement as a corporation since the rebbe’s death. He’s avoided confrontation with the so-called messianists who claimed Schneerson was about to be resurrected, preferring to let events take their course. He’s let the movement’s far-flung outreach workers operate all but independently, while the headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., serves as a resource and head franchising office. The formula seems to work; Lubavitch has spread to every corner of the world, frequently as the only Jewish show in town. The movement suffered an embarrassment this year when its representative in Vilnius, Krinsky’s nephew Sholom Ber, came to blows with rival community leaders. But it hasn’t slowed the march of the men in black.
RABBI ZALMAN SCHACHTER-SHALOMI
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 80, is the founder, spiritual mentor and de facto chief rabbi of what might be the fastest growing wing of American Judaism: the New Age-tinged, socially liberal trend known as Jewish Renewal. From his home in Boulder, Colo., he teaches, writes and dialogues with the likes of the Dalai Lama and ordains generations of new rabbis, including Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine and Arthur Waskow of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center. Born in Poland in 1924, Schachter (he added the name Shalomi in the 1970s) fled with his family in 1941 to New York, where he enrolled in the central Lubavitch yeshiva. Ordained in 1947, he became one of the first Lubavitch outreach workers, taking up posts in New England and Manitoba. It was in Winnipeg in the mid-1950s that he began exploring Eastern religions and openly questioning traditional Jewish notions of exclusive truth. In 1962, now in Philadelphia, he founded the B’nai Or (Children of Light) Fellowship, forerunner of today’s Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a support center and network of congregations sharing the syncretic, mystically oriented path of the man disciples call “Reb Zalman.” In recent years he’s expanded into “spiritual eldering,” helping seniors come to terms with aging and training them to be spiritual mentors to the young.
Ballabon, 41, a native New Yorker, basically created a new demographic this election cycle: With a groundbreaking outreach event during the Republican National Convention, he helped put his fellow Orthodox Jews on the map as a separate Republican Party constituency. He — or rather, President Bush — was rewarded royally when as many as 80% of Orthodox Jews nationally gave their vote to the GOP ticket. A Yale-trained lawyer and a graduate of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Ballabon worked as a GOP Senate aide and later directed public affairs and government relations for Court TV and Primedia. He recently started his own public affairs strategy firm. A charismatic advocate of politics as an outgrowth of Torah, Ballabon is the founder and president of the nonpartisan Center for Jewish Values, chairman of the board of Jewish College Republicans and was one of the founders of Young Jewish Leadership PAC, the first Republican-Jewish political action committee in the country.
With her decades of activism on behalf of causes ranging from nuclear disarmament and building solidarity with Castro’s Cuba to gay and women’s rights, Leslie Cagan has long been a well-known figure in radical circles. During the past year, however, the veteran left-wing organizer found herself squarely in the mainstream media spotlight. As the head of United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s leading grass-roots anti-war coalition, Cagan, 57, organized a massive anti-Bush demonstration on the eve of the Republican National Convention. After months of very public bickering with New York City Mayor R. Michael Bloomberg over logistics, Cagan managed to draw hundreds of thousands to the march, making it by far the week’s largest demonstration. Unlike many radical activists, Cagan doesn’t shy away from loudly announcing her Jewishness. But while exit polls suggest that most American Jews share at least part of Cagan’s unhappiness with Bush’s policies, many are alarmed by the platform her group has given to critics of Israel. Cagan and her coalition explicitly equate the American occupation of Iraq and Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza — and they demand that both end immediately.
When Rachel Fish learned that Jewish students were complaining about anti-Israel intimidation at the hands of some Columbia University professors, she moved to put the allegations on the record. The result was a 25-minute documentary film, featuring Columbia students and graduates detailing their claims, that shook the Columbia administration. Hours after an October 27 press screening of “Columbia Unbecoming,” university president Lee Bollinger announced an investigation. It marked another successful endeavor by Fish, 25, who heads the New York office of the David Project, a new Boston-based pro-Israel activist group. Fish first surfaced last year as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School when she led a successful campaign to persuade Harvard to return a $2.5 million gift from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates. The donation was to have funded a chair in Islamic Studies, but Fish discovered that an Arab League think tank bearing Sheikh Zayed’s name provided a platform for Holocaust deniers and purveyors of anti-American and antisemitic conspiracy theories. Her persistence against one of America’s most prestigious institutions led to accusations of witch-hunting by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. But within weeks, the sheik had shut down the controversial center, explaining in a statement that it “had engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance.”
While much of the community has been looking ever more insistently inward, Ruth Messinger has risen steadily in the public eye as the voice of outward-directed activism, facing the world with Jewish liberal values intact. Her American Jewish World Service, a social-service agency that places volunteers in developing countries, focused on three big issues this year: the global spread of AIDS, international debt and the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Messinger’s group was out front on Darfur from the beginning, opening up a bank account to provide aid for stranded Sudanese refugees. In August, she traveled to the border region between Chad and Sudan and came back to share the horror stories. Recognizing that more than money was needed to heal such situations, Messinger got her agency involved this year in advocacy for the first time with the hiring of a Washington representative. When Messinger arrived at the American Jewish World Service after a landslide defeat in the 1997 New York mayoral contest, she joined a small charity, handing out money for international projects and facilitating small groups of young Jews doing good deeds abroad. The charity still does that, but Messinger has multiplied the American Jewish World Service’s mandate alongside its revenue. With Messinger on the phone, fund raising has risen every year, even during the lean years of the recession. The vision of tikkun olam that Messinger has fostered is striking a chord with an ever-growing number of adherents.
A close, old friend of President Bush, Houston venture capitalist Fred Zeidman worked his heart out to re-elect his fellow Texan. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign, Zeidman, 57, virtually took up residence in Florida at the end in an effort to help turn out the Jewish vote. Zeidman, who recently started a new gig at Greenberg Traurig, Washington’s foremost lobbying shop, serves as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Under his leadership, the institution became the first arm of the American government to declare a genocide in Sudan and has avoided time-consuming Jewish communal squabbles that have plagued it in the past. A raconteur with a soft Lone Star twang, shock of salt-and-pepper hair and sometimes salty tongue, Zeidman will continue in his role as presidential confidante and adviser on matters Jewish as Bush begins what looks to be a history-making second term.
When everyone started noticing the glass ceiling for women in Jewish organizations this year, it was largely the result of a vision that Barbara Dobkin has pursued for years. Using funds from the Dobkin Family Foundation, she has helped foster a small army of organizations and professionals advocating for the advancement of women in the Jewish world. She provided the seed money four years ago for the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, which has pushed a raft of organizations to re-examine the status of women in their ranks. The cause got a boost this year when the Conservative rabbinate, acting on a startling study, promised new measures to equalize the numbers and the pay of women rabbis. Another group, the Mandel Institute, which trains next-generation leaders for Jewish community federations, committed itself this year to making sure half of its trainees are women. Shepherding this movement forward has been a longtime passion of Dobkins. Ten years ago she founded Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project, at the JCC of Manhattan. Unlike many Jewish philanthropists, Dobkin does not drop cash for a few years and then pull out. She has dedicated herself to a few philanthropies that express her vision — creating organizations where there were none — and then stuck with her ideas. It is starting to pay off.
After 25 years as the president at Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, Steve Nasatir has become the archetype of the successful Jewish fund raiser. JUF was the largest charity in all of Chicago last year, and the 85th largest philanthropic organization in the country, all built on a metropolitan Jewish community of 270,000. The focus of Nasatir’s work has always been the bread-and-butter issues of the Jewish community, like Israel. He pushed for the national formation of an Israel Emergency Campaign, and Chicago’s campaign raised more per capita than any other federation. But Nasatir’s federation has also become a leader in its social service offerings. This year Nasatir opened a new program to provide job training for disabled adults — the first program of its kind in Chicago. With his eye toward the bottom line, Nasatir has developed a reputation as a prickly character in some of his smaller dealings, but he always applies his hard-nosed ways in defense of the Jewish people. When the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from Israel this year, Nasatir swiftly cut off the Jewish federation’s formal contact with the Church.
The head of the largest local charity in America, John Ruskay made UJA-Federation of Greater New York even bigger this year, boosting its annual campaign by $4 million to an all-time high of $145 million. The need was displayed in a path-breaking study released by the federation this year about Jewish poverty in the city. UJA-Federation has been at the lead for years in providing social services to the city’s least privileged, far beyond the Jewish community. Ruskay, 58, worked to increase visibility with a street advertising campaign that touts the federation’s social services. He’s launched New York’s first Jewish hospice system, and is placing social workers in synagogues, where he believes that Jews turn first when in need. He led a study mission to Ethiopia and Israel this year and brought together a consortium of American groups to provide emergency aid. But his hardest push has been to increase involvement in Jewish education and synagogue development, including a $1 million program bringing together faculty from Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary to confront problems in congregational schools, where most Jewish children get their religious education.