The religious leader of Temple Rodef Shalom in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., Rabbi Amy Schwartzman made headlines in September when she confronted President Bush with the issue of poverty during a White House meeting between Bush and an invited group of rabbis. The other 16 clerics present took turns flattering Bush’s foreign policy. Schwartzman, 40, used her turn to tell the president that an additional 3 million Americans had fallen below the poverty line since his election and to ask him what he planned to do about it. In the process, she gave voice to Jewish activists who complain that the major Jewish organizations have abandoned domestic social causes because of fears for Israel. More important, she engaged the president, respectfully but firmly. “I didn’t want to stick out as a non-supporter,” she told the Forward afterward. “I’d like to think I was challenging the president to look hard at his own religious values.”
As the Iraq debate grew more divisive, Rabbi Michael Lerner loomed large as the most visibly Jewish figure in the antiwar movement. His visibility made him a rallying point for Jewish leftists struggling to maintain a place in the community. That didn’t seem to translate into new growth for his own Tikkun magazine or its year-old offshoot, the Tikkun Community; magazine circulation was stuck at 24,000, and the Tikkun Community’s first Washington conference, in June, produced little splash. Still, Lerner’s personal stature only grew as he ran afoul of anti-Israel forces. He was banned from the speakers’ platform at a February antiwar rally in San Francisco after criticizing a sponsoring group, International Answer, as anti-Israel. The resulting flap briefly made him a martyr; the uber-liberal magazine The Nation magazine wrote that Lerner was “more of a mensch than the people of ANSWER” and called him “the progressive Jew.”
Every election has its own story, but the sudden growth in the ranks of women in senior Jewish volunteer leadership positions — at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Anti-Defamation League, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and elsewhere — is due in no small measure to the pioneering influence of Shifra Bronznick. A management consultant specializing in non-profit organizations, Bronznick, 49, has been quietly counseling major Jewish agencies on how to reach out to the neglected 50% of their constituency — not by quotas or street protests but by building a human-scale workplace and rewarding excellence wherever it’s found. Two years ago she started her own organization, Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, with the backing of philanthropist Barbara Dobkin. Last May Bronznick convened the first-ever summit of Jewish women volunteer leaders in national organizations, with support from one of her clients, the New York-based women’s center Ma’yan. Her pragmatic, results-oriented leadership theories have made her a go-to consultant for a host of other causes as well, from the Jewish Fund for Justice to Synagogue 2000 and United Jewish Communities.
Felice Gaer is the American Jewish community’s in-house international human rights expert. The director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee, she spends much of her time and connections defending Israel in international forums. But she has also delved into other human rights issues long before they bubble to the surface. This year, after being re-appointed in May to the governmental U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, she started alarm bells ringing about the drafting of the constitution in Afghanistan. The issue has since made its way to Capitol Hill and is now part of the debate about the future of the Iraqi constitution and the more general question of how to combine Islam and democracy. Gaer has also been a key player in promoting the international debate on torture, and was the first American ever named to the 10-member United Nations Committee on Torture. She’s been a member of nine American delegations to U.N. human rights negotiations between 1993 and 1999, including the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the World Conference on Women and the World Conference on Human Rights — in addition to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, where she has been a staunch advocate for Israel and Jewish rights.
His associates say New York attorney Judah Gribetz is the man who put the “special” in “court-appointed special master.” When Brooklyn federal Judge Edward Korman tapped him in 1999 to oversee the allocation plan for the $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement, everyone knew it would be complicated. But no one could have predicted the acrimony that would pit communal leaders against survivors, and even survivor against survivor. Through it all Gribetz, 74, fought the political pressures in order to keep the ball rolling. Amid the swirl of competing claims from death camp survivors, former slave laborers and others, he has kept the process focused on the two issues that the judge considered central to the allocation plan: the legally enforceable claims of Swiss bank account holders and the needs of the most destitute survivors. His Solomonic rulings have incurred criticism from some American survivors who say they’ve been shortchanged, but Gribetz appears to have won the trust of most of the survivor community as well as the gaggle of communal organizations trying to weigh in, from the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to the Conference on Jewish Claims Against Germany. A former deputy mayor of the Big Apple and past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Gribetz has kept a surprisingly low profile. He is part of a smallish group of New York community leaders working mostly out of the limelight and taking the middle road to get the job done.
Rachel Zelon has never been one to let a Jew in need go waiting, but this summer she took it to an extreme. In June and July the 44-year-old vice president of operations at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society journeyed to Iraq twice, just weeks after the war ended, to ensure that the surviving members of the world’s oldest Jewish Diaspora community were taken care of. Armed with only a hazy list drawn up through the conversations with Iraqi émigrés, Zelon tracked down each of the remaining 34 Jews in Iraq and offered them a plane ride to Israel. She helped ferry six out of the country, and for those who chose to stay, she set up a program through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to make sure each had food, clothes and medical care. Zelon is no stranger to remote, deprived corners of the globe, where she has searched for Jews in need. Nothing, though, compared to slowly recovering Iraq, where many of the Jews she discovered were afraid to open their doors for fear of the virulent antisemitism overtaking the country. Zelon never let the fear stop her, and bullets became background noise as she fulfilled the HIAS mission of “rescue, reunion and resettlement.”
Celebrated playwright Eve Ensler has become the center of a worldwide movement. Using the script of her Obie Award-winning play “The Vagina Monologues” as a consciousness-raising tool, Ensler, 50, has been working around the globe to end violence against women and girls — including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery. Under the sponsorship of V-Day, the charity she created in 1998, the play is now performed around the world in more than 25 languages. This year alone there were 1,000-plus V-Day benefits around the world, including Jerusalem and Ramallah, raising more than $4 million for causes ranging from battered women’s shelters to the family violence center of the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Ensler’s contribution to “Women’s Seder Source Book: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder” (Jewish Lights, 2003) gave voice to rape survivors in Bosnia. Two new plays by Ensler, “The Good Body” and “I Am an Emotional Being,” are set to debut in the coming months. Next month PBS will debut a film about the writing group she leads at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women called “What I Want My Words To Do to You,” which won the 2003 Sundance Film Festival’s “Freedom of Expression” award. “My thinking, my social activism, my humor, are all rooted in my Judaism and my Jewishness,” Ensler told the Forward earlier this year.
It’s not every graduate student who chooses to spend her spare time battling foreign potentates. But that’s precisely how Rachel Fish spent her final semester at the Harvard Divinity School. What’s more, she won. Fish led a campaign calling on the divinity school to return a $2.5 million donation from the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, because an Arab League think tank that bore his name provided a platform for Holocaust deniers and purveyors of anti-American and antisemitic conspiracy theories. Jewish groups had complained about the center, but it was Fish’s campaign on the campus of America’s most prestigious university that focused international media attention on the center’s record. While the Arab American Institute’s president, James Zogby, labeled Fish’s campaign an anti-Arab “witch hunt,” insisting that the sheik had nothing to do with the center, in August the sheik shut down the center, with his office explaining in a statement that it “had engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance.” Harvard meanwhile has said it will put the sheik’s donation on hold for a year while it examines the issue. The 24-year-old Fish is now continuing her activism, heading up the New York office of the David Project, a year-old pro-Israel activist group led by American Anti-Slavery Group founder Charles Jacobs.
Alan Dershowitz & Phyllis Chesler
This year marked a reunion of sorts for superlawyer Alan Dershowitz, 65, and feminist author Phyllis Chesler, 62. An item at summer camp several decades ago, the two scholar-activists recently crossed paths on the book circuit, where each is pushing a new work attempting to take on the resurgence of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel forces. With “The Case for Israel” (John Wiley & Sons), Dershowitz reinforced his status as America’s most public Jewish defender. On the other hand, Chesler, a veteran feminist thinker, raised more than a few eyebrows with her book “The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It” (Jossey-Bass), a searing indictment of anti-Jewish attitudes on the political left. Together, they helped cement the sense among their fellow Jews that something has gone terribly wrong.
The literary editor of The New Republic stands out as a reasoned voice of moral outrage in an increasingly unreasoned age, in a world seemingly divided between pundits who see Nazi ghosts under every bed and others who have lost the moral rectitude to identify and condemn antisemitism. In his memorable article titled “Hitler is Dead,” Leon Wieselthier spoke out last year against Jewish “ethnic panic”; this year he turned in the other direction, with a resounding response to the political left’s increasingly outspoken anti-Zionism, in particular Tony Judt’s call for the end of Israel as a Jewish state. When he isn’t walking the tightrope between paranoia and moral atrophy, Wieseltier, 51, continues to put out one of the most influential arts and letters sections in American journalism.
Steven M. Cohen & Gary Tobin
The official retraction this fall of the most famous statistic in modern Jewish life, the 52% intermarriage rate, represented a hard-won victory for a handful of social scientists who had questioned the figure since it was first published in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The critics had said the figure was inflated, that it painted a falsely gloomy picture of American Jewish life, and they looked to the follow-up survey in 2000 to prove them right. But when the new results came out in September 2003, three years behind schedule, the two sociologists with most reason to crow, Steven M. Cohen and Gary Tobin, were barely smiling. Cohen, 53, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had been brought onto the survey team as a senior consultant in 2000 to help salvage what threatened to become a new debacle. Thanks in large part to his intervention, the new survey corrected the worst mistake of the last one. Cohen viewed the result as worth the effort, offering a rich trove of demographic data for researchers to pore over. But Tobin, 54, a longtime ally who heads an independent San Francisco think tank, fumed that the new survey had spawned a whole new doomsday myth by undercounting the Jewish population. An outside review commissioned by the survey’s sponsor, United Jewish Communities, offered some backing to both views.
When President Bush appointed Daniel Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace last spring, Muslim organizations called it bigotry and some Democratic lawmakers cried foul. But conservatives, along with some very mainstream Jewish organizations, rallied behind the 53-year-old Middle East scholar. Pipes, founder and president of the Middle East Forum, a small Philadelphia think-tank, had been warning for a decade against the dangers Islamic extremists pose to American interests here and abroad. Supporters say the September 11 terrorist attacks proved him right. Bush’s appointment made the vindication official. Just as his father, Harvard University sovietologist Richard Pipes, once supplied intellectual ammunition for cold warriors in an earlier Washington, Daniel Pipes is now an important source of ideological backup for those urging all-out war against Islamic fundamentalism. Besides working the policy halls controlled by friendly neoconservatives, Pipes reaches a popular audience with columns in the Jerusalem Post and New York Post. “Campus Watch,” a program he launched to monitor alleged anti-Israel and anti-American biases among Middle East studies professors, has critics crying McCarthyism and many pro-Israel activists saying, “It’s about time.”
A certified stage fight choreographer, new-media guru Rushkoff helped set the scene this year for the biggest battle over Jewish identity since the Chasidim-Mitnagdim feuds of the early 19th century. A much-published author and NPR commentator, Rushkoff, 42, first turned his attention to Judaism only a year ago; this past April took his views public in “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” (Crown), an explosive attack on the “checkbook Judaism” allegedly propagated by the “suicide Jews” who run communal institutions. The latter-day Baruch Spinoza has challenged the communal line on everything from continuity to levels of observance to support for Israel, advocating instead his brand of “open-source Judaism” — as in open-source software, available and readily accessible to all. Rushkoff argues for opening Judaism up instead of circling the wagons, arguing that what unites us is the idea of tikkun olam, of making the world a better place, rather than ethnic or national affiliation. Rushkoff’s free-wheeling broadsides have ruffled more than a few institutional feathers. But his interactive approach to Judaism’s sacred truths has found a receptive audience among the Internet generation.
Frank Rich will surely remember 2003 as the year he made Mad Max very, very angry. In August The New York Times culture columnist penned a scathing attack on Mel Gibson, accusing the director of “The Passion,” a forthcoming film on Jesus’ last hours, of trying to “foment the old-as-Hollywood canard that the ‘entertainment elite’ (which just happens to be Jewish) is gunning for his Christian movie.” Rich’s was hardly the first attack on Gibson’s “The Passion,” but it was the one that elicited the most vituperative response. “I want to kill him,” Gibson told The New Yorker. “I want his intestines on a stick…. I want to kill his dog.” Rich, a former Times Op-Ed columnist and before that the Gray Lady’s chief drama critic, wields an acid pen. A veteran of the culture wars, Rich, 54, has long been an outspoken defender of gay rights and critic of religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. But when he turns his attention to Jewish issues, Rich shows that conservative pundits — who mostly have been either silent on the “Passion” controversy or backed Gibson — don’t have a monopoly on getting passionate about the threat of antisemitism.
Perhaps the most thankless job in Jewish communal life was dealt an especially low hand this year. But Stephen Hoffman, 52, the president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the roof body of the nation’s $2 billion network of Jewish philanthropic federations, has managed to make the best of it. When faced with a mess of a national population survey, inherited from UJC’s predecessor, Hoffman acted decisively, withdrawing the survey from circulation and submitting it to a series of internal reviews, then publishing both the survey results and the scathing reviews. Faced with a growing restiveness among local federations that balk at paying dues and overseas allocations, Hoffman has perfected a formula of give and take. With his right hand he has mollified critics, slashing UJC’s budget by 10% to $38.5 million; with his left he has threatened expulsion of federations that skimp on their dues to UJC. The former head of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Hoffman has maintained his popularity where it matters most, among the fickle group of leaders of large-city federations that make up the system’s power base. After two years at the helm Hoffman openly admits he’s tired of the squabbling and plans to go back to Cleveland in June. He won’t have solved the UJC’s problems, but he has cleared some brush and helped point the way, and that’s a lot.
Among his fellow big-city Jewish federation executives, John Ruskay, 57, is a favorite choice to be the next head of the federations’ roof body, United Jewish Communities. Too bad he’s not looking. The word is that he’s so well-ensconced at his current post, heading UJA-Federation of Greater New York, that he won’t hear of it. After four years as executive vice president of the world’s largest local Jewish charity, the onetime 1960s-style activist is just warming up. While the past year has seen New York’s lights go out and the nation’s economy in a slump, UJA-Federation’s multi-front fund drive soared to a total of $200 million, a record for Jewish federations across the nation. Although most of the growth was a result of the Israel emergency campaign and a spike in planned giving, the federation managed to attract 1,000 new donors and increase its regular annual campaign by $1.4 million to $131.1 million. The question remains whether it will be enough to offset the shrinking of government dollars and a near-doubling — at least according to a new federation survey — of New York’s Jewish poor during the last 10 years. The federation’s lobbying efforts helped stave off at least one massive budget cut this year, a state grant of $1.2 million for the federation’s celebrated Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
A printmaker from Detroit may become the next head of a $2 billion charity system, United Jewish Communities. That’s the rumor on the street about Robert Aronson, 52-year-old chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, who fell into the federation business in 1975 while looking for a job to supplement his artist’s income. Thirty years later he is seen as the odds-on insider candidate to succeed Stephen Hoffman as the president of the roof body of Jewish philanthropic federations. And he has earned it. Aronson turned the Detroit community into the second largest per-capita campaign giver to federation, with an unusually generous proportion designated to overseas needs, a favorite Aronson cause. The highest paid federation executive, Aronson also finds time to moonlight as a private adviser to mega-donors William Davidson of Detroit and Michael Steinhardt of New York. He is Steinhardt’s consultant on the brand-new Professional Development Project, which hopes to raise $25 million to attract young people to Jewish communal service through fellowships and scholarships. Aronson has had his share of challenges. After years of dipping into its unrestricted reserves, the Detroit federation found itself short $6.2 million last year and had to fire scores of people. If he is picked to head UJC Aronson will have his work cut out for him. UJC continues to struggle to find its vision, pay its bills and get federations to cough up their share of overseas funding.
Amy Friedkin & Bernice Manocherian
When Bernice Manocherian succeeds Amy Friedkin next spring as president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it will be a landmark moment for Jewish women: Manocherian will be the first woman to succeed another woman at the helm of a major Jewish organization. It will be business pretty much as usual, however, at the vaunted pro-Israel lobbying group, generally considered the toughest and most influential foreign-policy lobby in Washington. Both women are members of the Joint Action Committee, a Jewish women’s political action committee that calls itself the only pro-Israel PAC that also has a “domestic agenda,” focused mainly on abortion rights and church-state separation. But both women have shown that they can separate their domestic agenda from their Middle East politics, and that they can mix it up with the tough guys. Friedkin, 56, a San Franciscan, has guided the lobby through one of Israel’s most grueling periods since taking over in 2002, without missing a beat. Membership is up 55% during the last three years, from 55,000 to 85,000, and donations have almost doubled. Meanwhile pro-Israel legislation has sailed through Capitol Hill with greater ease than ever, helping the organization to maintain pressure when the administration seems to stray toward too much even-handedness — as some thought when the president’s road map to peace was issued — without ever dissing the president himself directly. Things won’t slow down under Manocherian, 61, a hard-driving New York business executive who’s been a top activist in Aipac and other Jewish political causes for years.
Now completing his 10th year as president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, 56, continues to be the mainstream Jewish community’s most vociferous opponent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Klein, who once served as statistician for Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, is a lonely but persistent critic of what he sees as attempts by the Bush administration to pressure Israel. His efforts to build ties to the Christian right paid off this year with a series of joint ads and rallies opposing Palestinian statehood and protesting the president’s road map to peace. Opponents call him a gadfly with no real backing, but the scheduled keynoter at his group’s annual dinner this weekend is none other than House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
A dozen years after taking over as executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris has transformed the struggling civil-rights agency into something very much like what it had been in its glory days: a white-shoe institution that speaks for America’s Jewish political and social elite. Revenues have skyrocketed, topping $37 million last year. After a drastic initial pruning, programs have mushroomed, ranging from traditional beats like interfaith dialogue and opinion research to new interests in counter-terrorism and the Geneva-based U.N. Watch. A political conservative at the helm of a member-driven and famously liberal organization, the soft-spoken Harris kept his views close the chest for nearly a decade, but the Bush era and the war against terrorism have put him at the center of the map. Lately he’s been looking less like a manager and more like a leader. His agency, following his lead, has begun tacking toward the center on issues ranging from energy to immigration and, of course, terrorism.
Malcolm Hoenlein & James Tisch
As the year began Malcolm Hoenlein was at the top of his game. With terrorism dominating the national agenda, Jerusalem and Washington more firmly allied than ever and Americans rallying for a war in Iraq, the world seemed to have come around to the sort of hawkish policies Hoenlein has been pushing for 17 years from his perch as chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Working mainly out of the limelight, on the phone and via daily e-mail bulletins, he kept his agency and the four dozen groups it represents close to the center of the action. His profile was uncharacteristically low this year, partly because of pressure from American and Israeli officials anxious to avoid accusations of a Jewish “cabal.” And the war’s messy aftermath put hawks everywhere on the defensive. Further lowering his profile was the installation in June of his new lay chairman, James Tisch, president of United Jewish Communities and scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, whose hands-on management style and lack of public charisma contrasted sharply with the two previous chairmen, media baron Mortimer Zuckerman and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Still, Hoenlein scored a few major victories this year. One was the release in February of the last five Jewish prisoners from a group of 13 held in Iran on spying charges, after a four-year campaign led by Hoenlein to free them. His effort to mobilize American Jewish groups to send tour groups to Israel bore fruit, giving a boost to the economy there, Israeli officials said. And he beat back an effort by Reform leader Eric Yoffie to restructure the conference and saddle him with a permanent steering committee.
When gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger found himself under fire for past remarks praising Adolf Hitler’s oratorical skills, Rabbi Marvin Hier came to the rescue. Hier, 64, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, helped defuse the issue, insisting that the action star — a generous donor to the center — is a friend of Israel and is no antisemite. Like Schwarzenegger, Hier bridges the worlds of politics and Hollywood. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Hier has won Oscars — two of them, for Holocaust-related documentaries he and the center produced. Born and educated on New York’s Lower East Side, Hier was working as a pulpit rabbi in Vancouver when a wealthy congregant, Sam Belzberg, offered to set him up in Los Angeles. In 1977 Hier moved south and started an Orthodox high school, known as Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, with a Holocaust education center named for Simon Wiesenthal. A quarter-century later, he and his center have become international forces. The center’s $40 million Museum of Tolerance is the city’s central Jewish address for elected officials, foreign dignitaries and Hollywood luminaries. Hier has ruffled some feathers along the way: He has irked many in Los Angeles’s Jewish establishment and earlier this year was criticized in the local press for taking a compensation package in excess of $400,000 even as his center has benefited from millions in state largess. Now, Hier is working to create a new $150 million Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, designed by star architect Frank Gehry — despite the objections of Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
After suffering a landslide defeat in her New York mayoral bid against incumbent Rudolph Giuliani in 1997, many expected veteran city pol Ruth Messinger, then 57, to quit public life or cash in on her political contacts. Instead the former Manhattan borough president, a local liberal icon, became executive director of the American Jewish World Service, a smallish agency making grants to Third World anti-hunger projects and deploying Jewish volunteers in Peace Corps-style programs to fight poverty and disease. Under her leadership the organization has tripled its revenues and expanded its work into small business development and women’s empowerment. This year it launched an important African AIDS initiative in partnership with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. At home Messinger has led the way in forming alliances like the Jewish Coalition for Service, which brings together groups with overseas volunteering programs, and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which coordinates communal responses to tragedy abroad. In an age when “Jewish identity” is equated with religious observance, Messinger has become a guru and matriarch to those who still believe in the old-time religion of healing the world.
Rising from humble beginnings as a student activist, Yossi Abramowitz, 39, has become a Jewish grant-generating juggernaut. This year, as the president of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union, he helped the organization land a $1.3 million grant from the European Union for projects battling antisemitism in the region. The work the group has already done garnered it a co-nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But this was only a side project next to his work as the CEO of the non-profit multimedia firm Jewish Family & Life! — a company that has been living up to its excited title since he founded it in 1996. During a time in which most tech-related companies have been cutting back, Abramowitz’s firm added to its already extensive roster of Web and print publications with the launch of Myjewishlearning.com. With support from Edgar Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, the Web site aims to provide an accessible Web portal to the practice and culture of Judaism. Also in the pipeline are plans to turn Jewish Family & Life!’s teen Web site, Jvibe.com, into a print magazine. Abramowitz has had no trouble lining up the biggest donors behind his ambitious projects. The question that lingers is whether these projects will live up to his predictions of changing the way Judaism is lived in America.