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Mem Bernstein

Mem Bernstein has been simultaneously one of the most influential leaders in the Jewish philanthropic world this year and one of the least visible. Though utterly shunning the spotlight, Bernstein’s fingerprints have been indelible on the work done by the two foundations started with the money of her late husband, Zalman. Both foundations labor to bring unity to the Jewish community across denominational lines through ideas and education. The older of the two, the Avi Chai Foundation, has been making waves for a while, but this year it was the work of the newer fund, Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, that made the biggest splash. Keren Keshet, said to be a reflection of Mem Bernstein’s personal vision, was instrumental in launching Nextbook, the smartest and most high profile newcomer to the Jewish cultural scene in some time. With a Web site full of Jewish booklists and cultural comment, plus a host of ambitious new publishing and educational projects, Nextbook has become a gathering place for some of the brightest young Jewish minds. Keren Keshet has also given the impetus to a bold new Jewish high school in San Francisco, investing $20 million to renovate a run-down college campus to create a non-denominational Jewish day school. Tuition will be free for the school’s first three classes, courtesy of Keren Keshet. Like the most dynamic of the “venture philanthropists,” Keren Keshet and its thoughtful trustee Bernstein don’t wait for the projects to come to them. They find projects they like and make them happen.

Lynn Schusterman

Lynn Schusterman, 64, has emerged as perhaps the single most visible funder of efforts to engage Jewish young adults with their heritage. The Tulsa, Okla., philanthropist heads a $100 million foundation and is a key player in the small circle of mega-donors who together increasingly determine the shape of Jewish communal life. Her foundation has partnered with fellow mega-donors such as Edgar Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt on a series of ambitious Jewish continuity initiatives, including the Birthright Israel program, the Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal project and the interactive Web site, which launched a year ago. Her foundation is the largest single funder of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and in the 1990s it spearheaded Hillel’s expansion into the former Soviet Union. Nor has the foundation’s longstanding leadership of communal engagement efforts diminished with the 2000 death of Schusterman’s husband and philanthropic partner, oil and gas magnate Charles. Since then, Lynn Schusterman, a very hands-on donor, has shepherded the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization to independence from its struggling parent group; helped organizations such as Hillel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi ramp up their campus Israel activism efforts, and launched the Israel on Campus Coalition as a coordinating body for ideologically diverse national Jewish groups.

Michael Steinhardt

Wall Street legend Michael Steinhardt has long been trying to provide a new home within Judaism for young tribesmen and women who have strayed from the flock. This year he made that commitment physical when he opened the 35,000 square foot Steinhardt Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which will house the student Hillel organization on three floors. The $2.5 million he gave for the project was only the tip of the iceberg that is Steinhardt’s philanthropic behemoth. He spent much of this year doubling his support and involvement in already established projects that have been threatened during difficult financial times. When Steinhardt’s brainchild Birthright Israel had its funding cut by the Israeli government, the 62-year old “mega-philanthropist,” as he is frequently called, went into action to protect and revitalize the program. In this project, and all others, he has not just given money, he has provided a vision that has regularly brought together the Jewish community’s most important leaders behind his ideas.

Michael Milken

Former financier Michael Milken seems to have rebounded nicely from the dark days of the 1980s, when he was pilloried as the junk bond king and symbol of Wall Street excess and imprisoned for trading insider stock information. In the years since his release, transformed by his struggle with prostate cancer, he has emerged as a major philanthropist and benefactor of arts and culture. His family foundation, run by his brother Lowell, has bankrolled Los Angeles’s premier Jewish day school, the Milken Community Day School, and a host of other initiatives in California, including the Milken Jewish Educator Awards for outstanding teachers in Los Angeles Jewish day schools. They’ve done pioneering work in Holocaust education, and their non-denominational Teacher Advancement Program and Mike’s Math Club have helped enrich schools nationwide. Now the Milkens are pairing with the Jewish Theological Seminary to advance a cause that the Milkens have pursued almost alone: preserving the traditions of American Jewish sacred music. JTS and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music have teamed up to stage a blockbuster five-day concert festival celebrating the 350th anniversary of American Jewry. The festival will be followed up with CD releases including colonial-era cantorial music and Chanukah songs. It all goes to show that, whatever his former disgrace, Milken, 57, has rehabilitated himself enough to take his place on the national scene.


Jon Stewart

When Jon Stewart took over in 1999 as host of Comedy Central’s satirical news program “The Daily Show,” he promised that the show wouldn’t change — “except I’ll be reading the news with a Yiddish accent.” But the show has changed. More successful than ever, it draws more young adult viewers during its 11 p.m. time slot than CNN, MSNBC or Fox News. This fall it won an Emmy for Best Variety, Music or Comedy Show. The man behind it all, born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz, uses his self-deprecating humor to explore what he once dubbed “the Jewish Holy Trinity: politics, sex and religion.” Stewart, 40, has worn his identity on his sleeve for years, whether emceeing an awards ceremony for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture or outlining “The New Judaism” in his book, “Naked Pictures of Famous People.” Now at the top of his game, the self-anointed “king of fake news” continues to flavor his show with his distinctly Jewish sensibility. (When Joe Lieberman tripped over a few Spanish words during a presidential debate, Stewart quipped that the senator would crush his opponents when it came time to speak Yiddish.) But for all the jokes, his show is no joke; featuring guests like Hillary Clinton and Bob Dole, it is serious about politics — just not too serious. It’s already booked several Democratic presidential contenders for its irreverent “Race From the White House” coverage, and as Campaign 2004 kicks into high gear, hundreds of thousands of potential voters will be tuning in to see how candidates handle Stewart’s pointed questions and gentle barbs. No wonder ABC News anchor Peter Jennings called Stewart “an essential character in the national political landscape.” Further proof that Stewart’s news isn’t just spoof: CNN has added a weekly version of “The Daily Show” to its international affiliate, reaching some 200 countries. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Louise Gluck

Louise Glück has followed in the footsteps of one of her teachers, another Jewish poet, Stanley Kunitz, as she has assumed the duties this fall of the Library of Congress’s 12th poet laureate. The native New Yorker’s sparse, sharp and emotionally compelling poetry — rippled with modern-day retellings of classical texts and Old Testament stories — has garnered her poetry’s highest accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for “The Wild Iris” (1992) and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction for her 1994 “Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry.” Among her volumes of poetry are “The Seven Ages” (2001), “Vita Nova” (1999), “Meadowlands” (1996), “Ararat” (1990) and “The Triumph of Achilles” (1985). A resident of Cambridge, Mass., and former Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellow, Glück — pronounced Glick — was born in New York City in 1943, and teaches at Williams College.

Debra Messing

It’s been a banner year for Grace Adler, the lead female character on NBC’s hit sitcom “Will & Grace”: After dating a parade of losers for several years, at the end of 2002 Grace met her mate — straight, Jewish and a doctor! — and married him (in a shul, of course). It was just as exciting a year for Grace’s alter ego, actress Debra Messing: After watching all of her co-stars go home with Emmys while she came up empty-handed in previous years, in 2003 Messing finally won an Emmy of her own as Best Leading Actress in a Comedy. And did her fans kvell! Messing, 35, has a flair for screwball comedy with a heart that has won her many comparisons to another redhead who made her name on the small screen: Lucille Ball. But the reason for the kvelling is that the Jewish actress also plays the most visibly Jewish character in prime time, cracking jokes about her religious upbringing and neurotic relatives at every turn. Credit for this goes largely to Messing, who told reporters after her Emmy win that she had persuaded the show’s writers to play up her character’s background this season. “I thought it would be great if Grace were open and unapologetic about being Jewish,” she told reporters, “if her Jewishness were just a fact, the way it’s a fact that Will is gay.” You don’t have to be Psychic Sue to see what lies ahead: Grace’s marriage will most certainly fail — the show’s premise relies on her connections to her gay best friend — but Messing’s (Jewish) star will continue to shine every week on Must-See-TV.

Tony Kushner

This has been some year for Tony Kushner. The 47-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s prolific abilities have been on full view, and the vista appears unlikely to change for at least a season or two: “Caroline, or Change,” his play about the relationship between a black maid and the son of the Jewish family she works for in Louisiana in 1963, opened at the Public Theater in September; “Angels in America,” his by-now legendary 1993 play, is being recast by HBO for the small screen and the larger audience it offers, and he has co-edited a new book with Alisa Solomon titled “Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict,” due out in November. Still, Kushner is most proud of the series of collaborations with children’s book author Maurice Sendak, all set to bloom over the next few months. In addition to writing the introductory essay for the upcoming coffee-table book “The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present” (Harry N. Abrams, 2003), Kushner has worked with Sendak on a book and opera, both titled “Brundibar.” Based on an opera written in 1938 and set in a thinly veiled Nazi-occupied Prague, it tells the story of two children who confront a bullying, child-hating character named Brundibar, an allegorical stand-in for Adolf Hitler. The opera was performed this spring in Chicago, and the children’s book version — art by Sendak, text by Kushner — was released this month. Although friends for many years, Kushner still can’t get over the fact that he has created a book with his childhood hero: “I am absolutely certain this is going to be one of the things in my life that I am proudest of.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel

For the People of the Book, she is, in many ways, the Person of the Books. Carolyn Hessel, the executive director of the Jewish Book Council, has earned herself a reputation as the arbiter, the tastemaker, the general judge of the Jewish book. The council, which coordinates some 70 Jewish book fairs and oversees the National Jewish Book Awards, can literally make an author’s career, with coveted appearances at more than a thousand Jewish book fairs across the country. Hessel has been known to request one-on-one meetings with authors, based upon which she decides which writers will make the best speakers for which communities, and recommends books to clubs, fairs and libraries. The powerhouse of publishing, who refuses to give her age, began her career shortly after giving birth to her first child, when her rabbi asked her if she would like to teach in the local Reform temple. She soon moved up and out, to the Jewish Education Service of North America. She was still at Jesna when, in the early 1990s, she was tapped to head up the Book Council. During the last decade, she’s increased its visibility and mystique, anointing successful writers such as Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer. Some observers of the Jewish book scene have argued that Hessel has positioned herself at the center of an enormous conflict of interest — the council anoints and promotes the hot writers of a given season, while also giving out the awards that recognize their achievement — and she has faced criticism for overlooking some high-quality writers. But Hessel remains resolute in her mission, as well as her taste. “My goal is to promote the reading, writing and understanding of books of Jewish interest,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “And I define ‘Jewish interest’ in the broadest terms.”

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