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Forward 50


As the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sara Bloomfield has been responsible for guiding one of the most important institutions conveying Jewish history and values to the rest of the world. The work took on particular political importance this year as the museum, a federally funded institution, led the American government in responding to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Bloomfield, 54, had pushed the museum’s Committee on Conscience to become more involved in contemporary crimes against humanity, and in April, the committee raised a genocide alert about Darfur before other Jewish groups had even noticed the problem. Just last month, Bloomfield met with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan about the crisis in Darfur. Bloomfield was also instrumental in the opening of the museum’s National Institute for Holocaust Education, which provides programs about the history of the Jews for teacher, soldiers, judges and police officers. To reach a platform from which she is speaking to so many, Bloomfield has paid her dues. She began at the lower administrative levels of the museum in 1986 and has since provided a rare model of woman rising to the highest ranks in the Jewish world.

Judah Gribetz

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.

Blu Greenberg

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.


Jeff Ballabon

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.

Leslie Cagan

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.

Rachel Fish

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.”

Ruth Messinger

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.

Fred Zeidman

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.


Barbara Dobkin

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.

Steven Nasatir

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.

John Ruskay

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.


These two philanthropic giants, Jewish charity’s premier practitioners of so-called venture philanthropy, have joined forces in a slew of initiatives in Jewish education and synagogue renewal in recent years. Yet they’re different enough to merit their own entries. Steinhardt, 64, who made his fortune managing his own hedge fund, is a bombastic New Yorker who thrives on ruffling feathers and in challenging conventional wisdom. Schusterman, 65, who took over her family’s foundation four years ago after the death of her husband, Tulsa oilman Charles Schusterman, wields her increasing influence with a soft and humble touch. They’ve partnered on such projects as Birthright, Hillel leadership, Synagogue Transformation and Renewal and this summer’s so-called 20-something summit, kicking off their Professional Leadership Project. Independently, each has set up a free-standing foundation-cum-think tank to manage the growing numbers of initiatives each one is cooking up. Much about the future of Jewish life in America could be determined by how wisely this tandem spends its dollars and on their ability to balance Steinhardt’s maverick streak with Schusterman’s ability to work with established institutions.

Barry Shrage

The anonymous donors who gave $45 million to Boston’s Jewish day schools this year did not come to their decision spontaneously. The mammoth donation came together after five years of hard work behind the scenes by Barry Shrage, chief executive of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Shrage, 58, has developed a reputation over the years for both innovative programming and good old-fashioned fundraising prowess. The gift to the day schools — the largest in the federation’s history — is only Shrage’s latest effort in his fight for Jewish continuity, a struggle that many other federations have let fall by the wayside. In the press, it was the day school donation that got Shrage attention, but Shrage’s federation has also led the way with its “universal adult literacy program.”A new program this year provided day care so that parents of young children could study Jewish texts on weekday mornings. Shrage has not always endeared himself to community leaders around the country with his candid criticism of the way Jewish organizations operate, but the results suggest that others might do well to listen up when he speaks.

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