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Forward 50 2020: The people we (mostly) needed in the year we (definitely) didn’t


Meet your Forward 50: We’re hosting a series of virtual events with members of the list. Next up on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 2 p.m. ET: Ellie Klein Goldman, Jacob Jonas, Christa Whitney and Ariel Zwang. Sign up here to join the Zoomversation.


Let me be the last to say it: This was the year of reinvention, redefinition — of distilling things to their essence and letting go of what we discovered we did not need. And so I bring you the slimmed-down Forward 50 list of the year’s most [TK] American Jews.

We used to say, “most influential,” a phrase that seemed encouragingly flexible but in fact was quite fraught. The dictionary definition of “influence” would leave us the same list year in and year out, and there is the inevitable debate over how to acknowledge those whose influence was profoundly negative. “Influencer” has become a whole different thing.

I decided to skip the adjective this year. “TK” is the placeholder journalists use for a fact or phrase they still need to find. It stands for “to come,” and gets replaced before publication with that essential fact or perfect phrase. I’m leaving it here — “stet,” in old journalistic parlance, or “let it stand” — because I can’t quite come up with the right word to describe this list. It’s been a TK kind of year, and who knows what’s TK in 2021.

This is a list of 50 American Jews who did remarkable things in this remarkable year; people we (mostly) needed in a year we very much did not. Some are household names, familiar from Forward headlines — not all for good reasons — and some are people you’ve probably not heard about before. Eleven of the 50 were nominated by you, our readers. The rest, and much of the commentary, comes from our incredible Forward staff.

A handful have been on our list before, but we just had to include them anyway, like Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, whose high-holiday sermon about race and Judaism should be seen in years to come as an important primary source, and the rapper Daveed Diggs, whose “Puppy for Hanukkah” video might just be the same.

Another handful were only left off because they are affiliated with the Forward, like Tema Smith, our contributing columnist, or because they are not American — Tema, again; her fellow Canadians, Eugene and Dan Levy, the father-and-son team who brought us the Emmy-sweeping “Schitt’s Creek” in this year when television took on outsized importance; Tal Zaks, the Israeli chief medical officer of Moderna, and Albert Bourla, the Greek CEO of Pfizer.

(Following Forward tradition, I offer one of these non-Americans as honorary No,. 51: Bibi Shapiro, the 6-year-old from Perth, Australia, whose soulful rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu” went viral, reminding us, again, about Jewish diversity and also Jewish joy.)

The list this year is also just a list — we did not commission 50 profiles, we did not interview our 50 about their heroes or what they eat for breakfast. We are, instead, inviting them to join me for a series of moderated “Zoomversations” in early 2021 to explore both big questions facing our communities and small ones about their lives. Sign up here to join the first one on Jan. 12.

I decided not to decide even on a meaningful order for our TK list. Here it is, alphabetically — by first name. Because it’s been that kind of year.

1. & 2. Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff, Music Makers

Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner

Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner By Angelie Zaslavsky

Taylor Swift’s double album year owes much of its darker sonic quality to these boychik producers. “Given the extensive creative contributions by members of the tribe to her latest efforts, should Taylor Swift’s new music be considered Jewish music?” Seth Rogovoy asked in these pages. Add it to the Four Questions for next year.

3. Aaron Samuels, Community Creator

Aaron Samuels

Aaron Samuels Courtesy of Aaron Samuels

If you wanted to take part in Aaron Samuels’ AfroTech 2020 conference, you had to enter through a video game. The innovative virtual space attracted 15,000 people.

Samuels, raised in Providence, Rhode Island, by a Black father and Jewish mother, worked at the consulting firm Bain & Co. before publishing the poetry collection, “Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps,” in 2013, and then creating Blavity, a digital community for Black millennials, the following year.

For this community, which draws 1 million users a month, 2020 was “a one-two punch” — of Covid and the Black Lives Matter uprising,” Samuels wrote,

“You need to accept the trauma of change, and even mourn the year that you thought you were going to have,” he explained. “But you also need to move into that and view it as a moment of opportunity. These were the rules, but they are different now. Can we still find a way to create spaces of love and intention for our community?”

4. Alex Goldstein, Chronicler of Loss

Alex Goldstein, the mind behind @facesofcovid

Alex Goldstein, the mind behind @facesofcovid on Twitter. Courtesy of NinetyWest

Here’s another number to tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic: 4,457. That’s how many Tweets Goldstein has posted, as of this writing, on @facesofCOVID since he created the account in March to chronicle our collective loss.

Each night before bed and each morning when he wakes up, Goldstein, who runs a public-relations firm and is on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council in his native Boston, scours local news outlets and other sources for obituaries he turns into 240-character tributes. I’m one of his nearly 140,000 followers.

“It was really scary outside the four walls of my house and this was a way to humanize the trauma that was happening out there,” Goldstein told Philissa Cramer, the Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in an October interview. “I call it the responsibility of memory.”

5. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Morning Meditator

Image by Courtesy of Angela Buchdahl

Buchdahl, 48, the first Asian-American to be ordained as a cantor and the first to become a rabbi, made the Forward’s Top Five in 2014, when she became senior rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, a post she still occupies with grace and strength.

But we had to bring her back this year. Buchdahl’s response to the lockdown back in March, a free streamed morning meditation, has given many thousands comfort, structure and spiritual grounding in these endless days. Her sermon, an intensely personal account of life as a Jew of color, is one of the year’s important primary texts.

6. Ann Goldstein, Translator of Translation

Ann Goldstein

Ann Goldstein Courtesy of youtube

Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante’s novels — and Primo Levi’s complete works — received unprecedented attention this year, explaining the kinks of her usually invisible craft to innumerable publications.

A profile in The New York Times lauded her contribution to her enigmatic client (Ferrante’s identity has never been solidly confirmed). And our reviewer, Talya Zax, declared her new book with Ferrante, “The Lying Life of Adults,” a beautiful work drawn from a stereotype of beauty.

7. Ariel Zwang, First Female CEO

Ariel Zwang

Ariel Zwang Courtesy of JDC

After a tense selection process, Zwang on Jan. 1 becomes the first woman to head the Joint Distribution Committee — a huge job. Founded in 1914 and known as the Joint, the JDC has a budget of $373 million and works to build Jewish communities in more than 70 countries.

8. Arielle Angel, Voice of the Left

Arielle Angel of Jewish Currents.

Arielle Angel of Jewish Currents. Courtesy of Arielle Angel

As Editor-in-Chief of Jewish Currents, Angel, who is 36, has revived an important journal of the Jewish left. Her own writing on the pandemic has been powerful, and she edited and published the longer version of Peter Beinart’s widely read New York Times column, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”


9. Beanie Feldstein, Actor-Activist

Beanie Feldstein

Beanie Feldstein Image by Getty/Kevork Djansezian/Stringer

Sister of Jonah Hill, best friend of Ben Platt, scene-stealer in “Lady Bird” and star of the early-pandemic production “Saturday Night Seder,” Feldstein, 27, is one of the few celebrities whose get-out-the-vote pushes weren’t overly cloying or self serving.

Like this Instagram PSA starring her mom, Sharon, and other celebrities’ moms. “Don’t make us nag you,” Mom Feldstein said. “Only vote if you care about breathing clean air, living in a safe place, and having a job that pays enough for you to have a happy life.”


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A post shared by Beanie Feldstein (@beaniefeldstein)

10. Rabbi Benay Lappe, Irreverent Scholar

Rabbi Benay Lappe

Rabbi Benay Lappe Image by SVARA

Of the many Jewish institutions whose pivot to online gathering led to a boost in engagement, surely one of the most intriguing is SVARA, the queer yeshiva based in Chicago. Enrollment doubled this year to 7,000, with registrations for some classes filling up in hours. Its Queer Talmud Camp ended with an online dance party; some teachers are called “fairies” and wear toy wings.

“The learning is ridiculously rigorous and serious,” Lappe told our Josh Flanders for a recent profile. “but we’re also having fun.”

11. Blimi Marcus, Nurse of Conscience

Blimi Marcus

Blimi Marcus Courtesy of Blimi Marcus

A nurse practitioner from Borough Park, Brooklyn, Marcus, who was sick with Covid for two weeks in the spring, was one of a handful of brave Orthodox Jews who spoke out this fall against their neighbors’ refusal to adhere to social-distancing requirements and against protests that framed the restrictions as antisemitic.

“I am crying today, as we all should be,” she wrote in October. “We are in the news, acting shameful, yet feeling righteous about it. And we cannot even do teshuvah for it for another whole year.”

12. Brooke Averick, Queen of TikTok

Brooke Averick, aka @ladyefron on TikTok

Brooke Averick, aka @ladyefron on TikTok Courtesy of TikTok

Better known as @LadyEfron (because of her obsession with Zac Efron, natch), this preschool teacher has more than 738,000 TikTok followers and, according to Hey Alma, “has basically become the app’s Jewish voice of Gen Z.” She also has no filters — her videos, as Alma put it, bare “a never-ending slew of embarrassing anecdotes, tales of gastrointestinal woes, and priceless childhood throwbacks.”

My favorite part of the Alma interview is at the end, where Averick, all of 24, is asked what she would tell her 13-year-old self.

“Oh, God. I don’t know,” she said. “That’s an emotional question. I feel like I’d want to be like, ‘it gets better,’ but… does it? Maybe like, ‘Things suck, and that’s OK.’ Not, ‘it gets better,’ but, ‘You’re gonna be OK.’”

Very 2020.

13. Camilla Marcus, Feeder of Restaurateurs

Camilla Marcus

Camilla Marcus Courtesy of wikipedia

The owner of West~bourne cafe in SoHo, which closed in September, Marcus helped found the Independent Restaurant Coalition to save small, local operators during the pandemic.

“Our industry is collapsing,” Marcus said on CNN last month. “This touches every facet of our culture, of our society, of our neighborhoods. We’ve just been seen as collateral damage, and that’s brutal for the 11 million of us who have dedicated our lives to taking care of others.”

14. & 15. Caroline Dorn and Ellie Klein Goldman, Shul Whisperers

Ellie Klein Goldman and Caroline Dorn

Ellie Klein Goldman and Caroline Dorn By Angelie Zaslavsky

After 18 months of anonymous Tweeting about the secrets of synagogue life @rogueshul, these two came out in November — with a business plan to help synagogues live their best lives.

“Our Twitter adventure began simply as a way to entertain ourselves and to laugh about the work at the end of consistently long days,” they wrote on their new website. “As our follower count grew, what emerged was something unique – a community we didn’t know we needed.”

16. Christa Whitney, Historyteller

Christa Whitney

Christa Whitney Courtesy of Twitter

Whitney, director of the Wexler Oral History Project at the Yiddish Book Center, turned its collection of interviews into a searchable index of living Yiddish history.

“Instead of having to listen to hours of an informant’s tale, one can use a specific search term to pull up that segment of the story,” explained the Forward’s archivist, Chana Pollack. “That, in turn, makes modern Jewish/Yiddish history remarkably user-friendly and even more of a journalism, arts, creative and teaching tool.”

17. Rabbi Dan Fink, Community Healer

Rabbi Dan Fink

Rabbi Dan Fink Courtesy of Dan Fink

Fink, 59, leads Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho, whose 1896 building is the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi River that has been continuously used as a synagogue. Of course it has not been used much this year.

Like so many rabbis, Fink has had to find creative new ways to connect with his congregation in 2020, said Andrea D. Leeds, a longtime member who nominated him. But when Boise’s Anne Frank memorial was defaced with swastika stickers, a reprise of similar hateful vandalism in 2017. Rabbi Fink “led the healing in our community,” Leeds said.

18. Daveed Diggs, Hanukkah hero

Image by Getty Images

If you have somehow not seen his “Puppy for Hanukkah” video, please stop reading this article and watch it now.


19. Deborah Cornavaca, Virus Fighter

Deborah Cornavaca

Deborah Cornavaca Courtesy of

A deputy chief of staff to Gov. Phil Murphy, Cornavaca was the point person working with rabbis and other leaders in the Orthodox hub of Lakewood to control the spread of coronavirus. “She was engaged with us daily, often multiple times, throughout,” said Rabbi Eli Steinberg, who led the panel, writes regularly for the Forward, and nominated Cornavaca for the 50. “She wasn’t just helpful; she was responsive and proactive.”

While Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and Orange County, New York, were hotspots for both the virus and rejection of social-distancing rules, Lakewood’s infection rates remained under control, without shuttering schools and shuls or, as Steinberg put it, “upending life as we know it even further.” Governor Murphy and his health commissioner started referring to this success as “the Lakewood model.”

“Deborah’s Jewishness,” Steinberg said, “is what gave her the sensitivity and knowledge needed so that we were always on the same page.”

20. Elaine Hall, Miracle Maker

Elaine Hall

Elaine Hall Courtesy of Elaine Hall

The Miracle Project, which Hall created in 2004 after adopting a son with autism, created an original musical, “The Influencer,” during the spring quarantine. It debuted online in June and in November became the first production with a “neurodiverse” cast to stream via Broadway-on-Demand.

“We parents of children with disabilities don’t take anything for granted; everything my son did was a miracle,” she said in an interview this summer. “I like to reverse the astronaut’s quote and say, ‘what is one small step for a typical kid is a giant leap for my special child.’ Every seemingly small achievement is a miracle to me.”

21. Ella Emhoff, Second Step-Daughter

Ella Emhoff in her own knitwear

Ella Emhoff in her own knitwear By Ella Emhoff

“To my brother and me, you’ll always be Momala,” Emhoff said to introduce Kamala Harris at the Democratic National Convention where she became the vice presidential nominee.

“You’re a rock — not just for our dad, but for three generations of our big, blended family,” she said. “There’s no union more perfect than the one that brings us all to your kitchen table every sunday night, for stir fry, feta chicken, or spaghetti-and-meatball family dinners

Just as Harris is making history as the first woman of color to serve as Vice President, the Emhoffs are making history as a mixed, modern family very close to the White House. Dad Doug is, of course, a critical role model as the first Second Husband but Ella, 21, is a lot more fun to follow on Instagram.

A student at the Parsons School of Design, Ella paints Pop-Tarts and does her own tattoos, but her specialty is knitting — and she may just be making an outfit for the inauguration.

“For such a momentous occasion,” she said in a recent interview with Garage, “I think it does require a momentous outfit.”

22., 23., 24. HAIM: Este Arielle, Danielle Sari and Alana Mychal, Singing Sisters


HAIM Courtesy of Getty Images

The trio, whose last name and band name is Hebrew for “life,” dropped their third studio album, “Women in Music Pt. III” in June, finding a new sound and snagging an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. The record introduces darker themes and lusher arrangements and more risks with genre than prior outings. They managed to pull it off in between lending Taylor Swift some harmonies on “Evermore” and serving as the reigning queens of Hanukkah Instagram.

25. & 26. Haile Soifer and Matt Brooks, Strange Bedfellows

Matt Brooks and Haile Sofer

Matt Brooks and Haile Sofer By Angelie Zaslavsky

In this year of profound political polarization, we choose to jointly honor Soifer, who was recently promoted to CEO (from executive director) of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition. They do not agree on…..well, anything, at least according to Twitter; but we very much need both of them.

27. Heshy Tischler, Rabble Rouser

Heshy Tischler

Heshy Tischler Courtesy of Getty Images

Once a gadfly candidate for New York City Council, Tischler emerged this fall as a dangerous force exploiting the backlash in Brooklyn’s Orthodox communities against the state and city crackdowns on coronavirus restrictions amid a second spike in infections this fall.

Tischler organized Borough Park protests that turned into pro-Trump rallies — and, with his encouragement, turned violent. He was arrested for inciting a riot in connection with a mob attack on the Haredi journalist Jacob Kornbluh, whose brave reporting on the neighborhood’s flouting of pandemic rules prompted Tischler and his supporters to call him a “moser,” or snitch.


28. Hy Wolfe, Erotic Host

Hy Wolfe

Hy Wolfe Courtesy of

Yiddish actor by night, alterations specialist at his brother’s sporting-goods shop by day, Wolfe is the keeper of the last Yiddish book warehouse in New York City. In the before times — January — he also played host to a book party celebrating the first published collection of erotic Yiddish poetry.

29. Dr. Irina Gelman, Corona Cop

Dr. Irina Gelman.

Dr. Irina Gelman. Courtesy of Irina Gelman

When the coronavirus positivity rates in the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel fell from 34% to 4% in a month, Gelman, the health commissioner of Orange County, New York, cried foul. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the village’s leaders attributed the dramatic drop to adherence to heightened social-distancing restrictions, but Gelman said it was likely because sick people were refusing to get tested.

The Yiddish-speaking Gelman was accused of antisemitism, but she said she was just trying to protect the public. “These are not anecdotal accounts,” she told the Forward, “and there is an inherent, serious population-wide health risk that impacts all residents of our county.”

30. Jacob Frey, Mayor in a Maelstrom


Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey Image by Star Tribune via Getty

The white mayor of a city at the center of the Black Lives Matter protests reignited by the police murder of George Floyd, Frey, 39, has, like so many American Jews, spent much of the year reexamining his own biases, privilege and complicity in structural racism. Only he has had to do it on a very public stage.

He has apologized to a long list of Black leaders and visited the Floyd memorial multiple times. In an August profile in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he also said that the book “My Grandmother’s Hands,” about the long-term trauma caused by racism, had been a particularly important read for him.

But Frey continues to field criticism from some quarters for not engaging a diverse enough group of Black people, or doing enough to help Black business owners recover from the pandemic and protest-related looting.

He is up for reelection in 2021.

31. Jacob Jonas, Dancer who Everyone’s Watching

Jacob Jonas

Jacob Jonas Courtesy of Jacob Jonas

Pre-pandemic, Los Angeles native Jacob Jonas, 28, had led his eponymous dance company, Jacob Jonas The Company, to critical acclaim and worldwide tours including stints at Art Basel and Lincoln Center. JJTC dancers use breakdance, acrobatics and contemporary ballet techniques in dances that, to borrow the title of their recent video, “Reflect the Times.”

What’s a dance troupe to do without a stage? How about “PARKED!” — performed on an asphalt lot in the Santa Monica Airport, to an audience seated in their cars. Jonas, 28, has managed to “dance” on social media, collaborate and teach. “Jacob Jonas Has Figured Out the Impossible,” said the headline in Dance Magazine. “How to Safely Put on a Live Dance Performance.”

32. Jake Tapper, CNN Seer

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper Courtesy of Getty Images

For his blunt insta-assessment of the first presidential debate: “That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.”

33. James Bennet, Sign of The Times

Photo by Rina Castelnuovo

Image by Rina Castelnuovo

Whatever you think about the OpEd by Sen. Tom Cotton whose publication in The New York Times led to his resignation, Bennet, 54, is an emblem of this year’s clashes between free speech and cancel-culture. He held two of the most scrutinized jobs in journalism, first as The Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief during the Second Intifada, and then running its Opinion department during the Trump era. In between, Bennet revived The Atlantic, helping restore its role as a leading platform for serious journalism.

34. John King, Map Man

John King

John King Courtesy of Getty Images

After four years of journalist-bashing from the White House — “fake news,” “enemies of the people” — and at least four months on conspiracy-mongering about the integrity of this year’s election, democracy itself seemed in the balance as the votes were counted in the days following Nov. 7. King, 59, who converted to Judaism in 2008, was among a stalwart handful of cable-news hosts who restored our faith by carefully and calmly explaining the unusually complicated counting with his amazing touch-screen maps.

His encyclopedic knowledge of county-by-county political demography is matched only by his ability to coordinate a steady patter of highly intelligible explanatory phrases with deft, ballet-like touchstrokes of increasingly sophisticated electronic maps. That he seemed never to sit down or sip water, night after night, raises the pressing question of whether he is human or superhero: Map Man!

35. Jon Ossoff, Majority Tipper?

Jon Ossoff at a rally.

Jon Ossoff at a rally. Courtesy of Getty Images

We’ll know in a few days. Ossoff, 33, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, are the Democratic candidates for the United States Senate in Georgia who came close enough to ousting the state’s Republican incumbents to force an automatic rematch on Jan. 5. If they both win, the Democrats will take control of the upper chamber of Congress, along with the House of Representatives and the White House.

This summer, Sen. David Perdue briefly ran an ad that exaggerated the size of Ossoff’s nose. This fall, when Republicans unfairly characterized Warnock’s statements about Israel, Ossoff pitched a strong defense.

Alas, given social-distancing requirements, his 2021 election-night party is unlikely to live up to the 2017 version, which guests suspected had a playlist stolen from his Bar Mitzvah.

36. Josh Shapiro, Vote Counter

Josh Shapiro

Josh Shapiro Courtesy of Getty Images

Shapiro, 47, keeps kosher, was educated in Jewish day schools, and beat back several lawsuits from the Trump campaign challenging the balloting in Pennsylvania, where he is attorney general.

37. Kosha Dillz, Forward Fan

I would have put him on the list just because of the custom raps he created for the Forward’s first-ever virtual gala. Especially the bit at the very end: “You gotta edit it up, like the homie Jodi, she runs the whale thing” — my kids loved that one. But that would undoubtedly violate some unwritten Forward 50 code of ethics.

Luckily, the rapper formerly known as Rami Even-Esh, 39, also released a new album in 2020 called “Nobody Cares Except You.” I care, Kosha, I care!

38. Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Notorious Eulogizer


Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt leads Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memorial service on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. Image by Molly Boigon

She sang “Min Hametzar” in the Capitol rotunda. And “El Malei Rachamim” at the Supreme Court. Holtzblatt, 42, whose day job is co-senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., eulogized Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, turning ceremonies of state into profoundly Jewish events.

“The Torah is relentless in reminding, in instructing, in commanding, that we never forget those who live in the shadows,” Rabbi Holtzblatt taught in her eulogy. “This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work.”

39. Lawrence Bacow, Education Enabler

Larry Bacow at Harvard's commencement in 2019.

Larry Bacow at Harvard’s commencement in 2019. Courtesy of Getty Images

Every American university faced unprecedented financial, educational and social challenges this year because of the combination of coronavirus and the country’s racial reckoning. Bacow, the 69-year-old president of Harvard — who was nominated by a reader, Ivy Marwill — also led the important legal battle against the Trump Administration’s move to force immigrant students to leave the country if they were not attending in-person classes.

40. Louise Gluck, Prize Poet

Image by Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Glück, 77, whose poetry draws heavily on classical myth and the Hebrew Bible, won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was lauded as a worthy choice by the Swedish Academy for her precise, clear and incisive voice. But critics likened her acceptance speech to a “minstrel show” for choosing to highlight William Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy.”

41. Maayan Zik, Bridge Builder

Maayan Zik

Maayan Zik Courtesy of

This Black, Orthodox mother of four helped bring Jews connected to Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitcher to Black Lives Matter protests in their Crown Heights neighborhood this summer. Then she helped create a group called Ker a Velt, a Yiddish phrase often used by the founder of the Lubavitcher movement that translates to, “turn over the world.”

“You can do a whole lot of talking and a whole lot of thinking, but nothing happens until the action,” Zik said in a Vogue profile. . “We wanted to continue and we didn’t want to sit back and say, ‘Oh, we did this thing this one time.’ If we are going to do this, we are really going to do this, we are going to go around and try to institute change in the neighborhood and our community as much as we possibly can.”

42. Marina Yudborovsky, ‘Female Powerhouse’

Marina Yudborovsky

Marina Yudborovsky Courtesy of Marina Yudbrovsky

When the CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group died of cancer in June, Yudborovsky, 39, was elevated to the top role, making her one of the very few women and perhaps the only millennial to head a major Jewish foundation.

The reader who nominated her, Justin Hayet — a former co-worker — called her a “female powerhouse.”

43. Rabbi Michael Beals, Joe’s Rabbi

Rabbi Michael Beals with Joe Biden

Rabbi Michael Beals with Joe Biden Image by Facebook

In nominating Beals, who presented a video testimonial about Joe Biden at the Democratic convention, Richard Plotzker, a reader from their home state of Delaware, offered just a simple Hebrew phrase: Aseh l’cha rav. It means, “make for yourself a rabbi,” or, find yourself a teacher.

Biden made Beals his rabbi. They met back in 2006, when Beals, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Biden’s hometown, was presiding over a shiva minyan for an elderly woman named Sylvia Greenhouse. The gathering was in a basement laundry room, and in walked then-Senator Biden. Turns out Greenhouse had sent Biden an $18 check for his first campaign, in 1972, and every subsequent one, so he had come to pay his respects.

“The fact that Joe Biden showed up to such a small humble service, a shiva, that nobody was going to know about and nobody was going to talk about ever again, tells me that this is a man who cares about other people,” Beals said in the video. “This is the type of person I want as my president.”

44. Michael Twitty, Meal Maker

Image by courtesy of michael twitty

It seems like this incredible queer, Black, Jewish James Beard award-winning chef and culinaryhistorian was interviewed by every podcast and publication this year, including ours. Also, his 2017 book, “The Cooking Gene,” was named one of the 100 Best Food Books of All Time by the Book Authority.

45. Pamela Adlon, Imaginary Super Mom

Pamela Adlon

Pamela Adlon Courtesy of Getty Images

You know what would have made 2020 easier to get through? If there had been more than 42 episodes of “Better Things,” the FX series that Adlon, 54, co-wrote with Louis C.K., produced and starred in. Because for the weeks in which I binge-streamed the series on Hulu in the scant hours between when my kids went to bed and I fell asleep on the couch, watching her unique brand of working-motherhood made my own balancing act more palatable.

I’m convinced that Adlon (or at least her character, Sam Fox) and I would be the best of best friends if only she lived in Montclair, New Jersey, instead of in Los Angeles — or, you know, if she were a real person instead of a television character. A single mom raising three girls and caring for her own mom while trying to maintain an acting career as she ages, Adlon — I mean Sam — is not your classic Super Mom. She screws up. She screams. She swears. But she gets the important stuff right.

And she cooks! The most amazing meals in the most amazing kitchen in the most amazing house with the coolest art everywhere. The show is Jew-ish in the best way, darkly funny, always surprising, warm, weird, wonderful and just not quite long enough. My wish for 2021? Season 5.

46. Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Truth Teller

Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Lawson’s powerful personal essay, was one of the most important — and best read — articles the Forward published all year.

Profiles of Lawson, who is 50, often include a list who and what she is — Black, queer, vegan, personal trainer, military veteran, TikTok rabbi, musician. That last one may not get enough attention. When she and Tema Smith, our contributing columnist, joined me on Juneteenth for a Zoomversation about the holiday, Lawson sang us in with a haunting, inspiring, a capella rendition of “Ella’s Song”:

We who believe in freedom
We can’t rest
We who believe in freedom
Cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of Black men
Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men
White mothers’ sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom
Cannot rest
Until it comes

47. Rabbi Susan Talve, Confronter of Hate

Rabbi Susan Talve delivers the invocation at a White House Hanukkah ceremony on December 9 as the first couple and Israeli President Reuben Rivlin (to her immediate right) look on. Image by Getty Images

Talve, 67, is the St. Louis rabbi whose synagogue is next door to Patricia and Mark McCloskey’s house. The McCloskeys made national headlines when they waved guns at Black Lives Matters protesters near their home in June. Seven years earlier, Talve had her own tangle with the couple, over some beehives the congregation’s children planned to harvest for Rosh Hashanah honey.

So when the McCloskeys were slated to speak at the Republican National Convention, Talve spoke out. “They are bullies,” she told the Forward’s National Editor, Rob Eshman. “It’s so upsetting that they have a national audience,” Talve said. “It’s upsetting we make heroes out of people who hate.”

48. Timothée Chalamet, Zillennial Heartthrob

Timothée Chalamet Image by Getty Images

The troubles of 2020 delayed the release of most of this alluring, razor-cheeked waif’s projects, including a new “Dune” adaptation and the Wes Anderson ode to The New Yorker, “The French Dispatch.” But Chalamet still made headlines, playing a role in virtual commencement ceremonies, upsetting fans with his choice of girlfriend, getting cast in a Bob Dylan biopic and capping off the year with an anti-HBO statement on “SNL” after serenading a tiny horse. We look forward to 2021, when he can once again safely offer red carpet bagels to fans.

49. Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, Hasidic Healer


Zelenko in March. Image by Bryan Derballa

He described himself as a simple country doctor trying to do the best by his patients — Hasidic Jews in and around Kiryas Joel, the Satmar enclave in Orange County, New York. He also ignored standard medical protocols and expert guidance in the earliest days of the pandemic, giving as many of them as he could hydrochloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that he believed could ward off Covid-19.

Though most medical experts thought back in March that the drug should be reserved for those hospitalized with the disease, Zelenko gave it as part of a cocktail even to those who were asymptomatic. His WhatsApp messages that contended the virus was not as bad as it seemed went viral in the Hasidic community, and his evangelism about the drug reached all the way to the White House.


50. Yael Eisenstat, Tech Cop

Yael Eisenstat

Yael Eisenstat Courtesy of Yael Eisenstat

Eisenstat spent 13 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency and six months as Facebook’s global head of elections integrity. She spent much of 2020 speaking out about what she sees as the tech giant’s failure to properly limit disinformation and the dangers that presents to democracy,

“I don’t envy Facebook for being in the position where anything they do will anger one party or the other,” she told The Guardian this summer. “But, at the end of the day, if you write your policies in a certain way and you enforce them equally – not equally in terms of numbers but in terms of enforcing the policy as it was written – that’s what should matter.”


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Jodi Rudoren is the Editor-in-Chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, or email [email protected]. PJ Grisar, Irene Katz Connelly, Mira Fox, Rob Eshman, Chana Pollack, Molly Boigon, Ari Feldman and Adam Langer contributed to this article.

Editor’s Note: The entry for Heshy Tischler has been changed to make clear that he was included not as a hero but as an example of the dangerous ways division and hate manifested this year. The headline also updated to add the word (mostly).

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