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Growing Clarity, Sharpening Debate

One year ago at this time, when we published our annual Forward Fifty list of the most influential members of the American Jewish community, we observed that our community and our nation lived in the shadow of a looming war. We noted that instead of forging a consensus, the threats we faced left us divided and confused, debating a host of questions of strategy and tactics but yearning for leadership and clarity.

A year later the war is no longer looming, but real. In its wake the shadows have begun to dissipate and the changed landscape is coming into view. We may not know the answers yet, but the question is becoming startlingly clear, and it is this: What is the place of the Jews in the world? Why has the world turned against us, and what is to be done about it? Do Jewish actions fuel our enemies’ hate, or is the very suggestion of our Jewishness an offense? What does our Judaism mean to the world? What does it mean to us?

Dominating this year’s Forward Fifty are individuals who are framing that debate for the rest of us. They are politicians, rabbis, writers, artists, philanthropists and community activists who have staked out a position. Many are directly tackling the big question of war and its consequences, while others are laying out alternative Jewish visions, rooted in economic justice, women’s rights or sacred texts.

Notable this year is the growing ease with which individuals in the public eye – legislators, journalists, entertainers – let their Jewishness hang out on the national stage, confident that America will accept it. If the world feels unsafe, America does not.

Fewer than half of our Fifty live in New York; the rest are scattered across the country from Boston to California and points in between. Two are transplanted Americans who are living in Israel.

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

Membership in the Fifty doesn’t mean the Forward endorses what these individuals do or say. We’ve chosen them because they are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves. Not all of them have put their energies into the traditional framework of Jewish community life, but all of them have consciously pursued Jewish activism as they understood it, and all of them have left a mark.

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