Forward 50 by the Forward

Forward 50: Meet The Machers And Shakers Who Influenced, Intrigued And Inspired Us This Year

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There is something both satisfying and terrifying about making a list. The very act of compiling — a to-do list, a bucket list, a gratitude list — can clarify priorities even to yourself. To accomplish or buy or even just remember these things becomes more important because they’re written down. What is left off may be just as telling.

This is the season of lists— gift lists, best-of lists, resolutions— and we at the Forward approach our annual compilation of 50 American Jews with both ambition and humility. Seth Lipsky, the first English editor of this storied institution, invented the list in 1994. “The criterion was newsworthiness,” he recalled simply when we looked into the project’s history. Why 50? “Probably alliteration,” he admitted, “which I’ve always loved.” (Me, too.)

Lipsky and my other predecessors generally framed it as a list of the “most influential” Jews, and some names — the machers and moguls — appeared year after year. The list included, too, some “shandas,” people who influenced the news largely by getting into trouble. “Newsworthiness itself isn’t a virtue,” Lipsky noted.

For this, the Forward 50’s 25th year and my first overseeing the list as Editor-in-Chief, we decided to approach the list a little differently. We dropped the “most” in our minds. We wanted a list of influential, intriguing and, yes, inspiring American Jews, but we wanted them to be mainly people you don’t know much about. We didn’t want the Forward 50 to be an insider’s game; we wanted the experience of reading the list to be one of discovery and delight. We skipped the shandas; felt like a different list.

We also sought help. More than 200 readers responded to our call for nominations. Some of their suggestions, like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman —whose assurance to his immigrant father that speaking truth to power was a safe thing to do in the United States as it was not in the former Soviet Union was a singular news moment of 2019 — were already securely on our list. Others, like Kerry Brodie, who created the refugee-run restaurant Emma’s Torch, were people we knew less about. In the end, 14 of our 50 were nominated by you. Neat.

The list is eclectic: Congressmen and a comedian, four rabbis and five authors of 2019 books, Zionists and non, Latina and black and Greek Jews, a farmer and a superhero, a runner and a couple of really, really creative cooks. The only fixed criteria are that they had to be American, and Jewish (sorry, Vladimir Zelensky).

There are even numbers of women and men, and their median age is 42. Two are just 18: Jamie Margolin, the Seattle-based climate activist who wants to be president, and Gabe Fleisher of St. Louis, Mo. whose “Wake Up to Politics” newsletter has 50,000 subscribers. The oldest is in her 90s: Chaya Palevsky, partisan, pioneer, preserver of history.

Another change this year: instead of us writing about the people on the list, we asked them to answer a few questions. We purposely did not ask about their work. Instead: Who are their heroes? What do they love about being Jewish? What do they eat for breakfast?

Four have been listening to the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America,” three to Lizzo. Jerry Nadler eats gefilte fish in the morning. One of the first steps in Rabbi Abby Stein’s gender transition was taking on the mitzvah of Shabbat candles — she has scarcely missed a week in five years.

Asked what app they can’t live without, a lot of the Forward 50 said The New York Times (me too!). Chaya Palevsky said “chopped liver.”

“What I like most about being Jewish is the complicatedness of it all,” said Dana Czapnik, whose new novel “The Falconers” had critics gushing. “If I found being Jewish easy, if I found being American easy, what would I have to think about? What would I have to write about?”

Indeed. We’re lucky to have so much to write about at the Forward, and so many more than 50 influential and intriguing characters in our community, but what’s below is a start. Click on each name to see more.

Thanks to Adam Langer, for leading this project, with the crucial help of Alyssa Fisher and John Kunza. It was truly a team effort, with contributions by Molly Boigon, Helen Chernikoff, Irene Katz Connelly, Ari Feldman, P.J. Grisar, Virginia Jeffries, Jordan Kutzik, Aiden Pink, Chana Pollack, Rukhl Schaechter, Jay Schreiber, Jenny Singer, Batya Ungar-Sargon and Talya Zax.

Let us know what you think: rudoren@forward.com.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The Internet Breaker

Is there a Jewier writer than Brodesser-Akner, 44, whose celebrity profiles for The New York Times Magazine consistently go viral and whose first novel made the National Book Award longlist? She grew up in Orthodox Brooklyn, served deli and Dr. Brown’s at her book-launch, and the Forward’s review of the novel, “Fleishman is in Trouble,” called her the feminist Philip Roth.

Adam Schiff: Impeacher-in-Chief (No. 1)

The California Congressman has catapulted himself into the history books by overseeing the impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee. President Trump calls him “Shifty Schiff,” a nickname many see as having anti-Semitic undertones, but Schiff, 59, has become a household name, talk-show staple and Democrat to watch.

Zach Barack: Hollywood’s New Hero

The first out trans actor to star in a Marvel movie, Barack, 24, is a role model for a generation challenging all traditional notions of identity.

MaNishtana: Orthodox Polymath

This black Jewish playwright-rabbi-novelist is a deft and acerbic observer of the intersections of race and faith. His nom de plume is Shais Rishon, he is 37, and he will make you both laugh and think deeply.

Eli Cohen: The Rabbi Trying To Heal Crown Heights

With anti-Semitic violence in his Brooklyn neighborhood becoming a frighteningly regular occurrence, Cohen, 64, is taking the long view. He and his friend Geoffrey Davis, a prominent black activist, are modeling inter-community partnership in scores of talks with students about their neighborhoods fraught history of racial tension and ongoing issues of gentrification.

Carly Pildis: Zionist Feminist Activist It has become decidedly more difficult to be openly Zionist in progressive political circles, but PIldis is not giving up. A frequent Tweeter and writer in Jewish publications (including ours), Pildis, 34, this year became the second employee of Zioness, a group trying to bridge that gap. She also knows her way around the Jewish kitchen.

Chaya Porus Palevsky: Lithuanian Partisan Hero

A partisan nurse during World War II, Palevsky later founded Nusekh Vilne, an organization dedicated to preserving the cultural legacy of Lithuanian Jewry. She is now in her 90s, has moved to Florida, and is featured in the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s new “Auschwitz” exhibit.

Adam Berman: The Urban Farmer He started an environmental club in high school, then an agricultural project at a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut, and now runs Urban Adamah, a community farm and educational program in Berkeley, Calif. Berman, 48, oversees an aquaponics greenhouse, a herd of goats and a yurt, all supported by solar power; he donates 90% of the produce the farm produces.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman: Refugee, War Hero, Patriot

His testimony before the House Intelligence Committee about the Ukraine quid pro quo captured the world’s attention — especially when he reassured his immigrant father that the First Amendment would protect him. Vindman, 44, wins the profile in courage award.

Jamie Margolin: The Teenager Who Would Be President

Just 18, she has already written a book, started a nonprofit, organized and spoken at endless events, and, yes, passed all her classes. This Seattle-based climate change activist even seems to understand the importance of self care.

Joseph Cedar: The Director of Complexity

Could Israeli television be more popular? This year’s phenom was “Our Boys,” created by Cedar, 51, an American-Israeli, along with a Sabra director and a Paletinian one. It set the Israeli right afire because it took as its focal point the brutal killing of a Palestinian teenager by mentally unstable Orthodox Jews in 2014.

Abby Stein: The Barrier Breaker

Four years after coming out as trans, Rabbi Stein’s memoir, “Becoming Eve,” was released in November. She helped lead the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., despite accusations of anti-Semitism about some of its organizers. Coming from a long line of Hasidic rabbis, Stein, 28, is clearly charting a derech of her own.

Rachel Chavkin: Reinventor Of The Broadway Musical

If, in the years since “Hamilton,” you’ve heard buzz about a Broadway show of thrilling originality, chances are it was directed by Chavkin, 39. There was “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812” in 2016 and, this spring, “Hadestown,” for which she won the Tony Award for best director.

Oren Segal: The Hate Tracker

As director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, Segal, 45, springs into action after every attack — which means more and more. His team has also helped law enforcement stave off attacks, by surfacing extremist plots.

Yavilah McCoy: A Force For Inclusion

An educator, playwright, and a force behind the Women’s March, McCoy, 47, fights to make the Jewish community more welcoming to Jews of color. She grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn, lives now in Boston, runs a consultancy helping educational institutions foster diversity, and opened her speech at the march in Washington by saying, “Shabbat shalom.”

Gabe Fleisher: The Boy Who Scooped Bill De Blasio

From his home in St. Louis, Fleisher, 18, runs “Wake Up To Politics,” an email newsletter with more than 50,000 subscribers — including big-time journalists. In May, he scooped the mainstream media by discovering that Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York was definitely running for president.

Max Kellerman: The Pundit of Sports Passion

Whether it’s boxing or baseball, football or hoops, Kellerman, 46, an ESPN commentator, is in the center of the conversation. He stood up for Colin Kaepernick’s right not to. He has spoken powerfully about the murder of his brother. And he is also a fluent Yiddish speaker!

Bari Weiss: The Commentator The Left Loves To Hate

Her book, “How to Fight anti-Semitism,” could hardly have been better timed: it’s the question every American Jewish organization, if not every America Jew, seems to be asking. And Weiss, 35, is answering it — on every stage, on every platform, on campus, on the scene, on television, on Twitter. Her day job: New York Times Opinion writer and editor.

Adam Serwer: Voice of the Devastated Left

A staff writer for The Atlantic, Serwer, 37, delivers trenchant analysis and amplifies the frustation of the anti-Trump crowd. In the wake of the border crisis and the Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant children and parents, he coined the phrase “The cruelty is the point.”

Ilana Kaufman: The Outsider’s Insider

A queer Jewish woman of color, Kaufman, 47, is the new director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, and a frequent consultant for large, mainstream Jewish organizations on questions of inclusion.

Sarah Hurwitz: Speechwriter for Judaism

What are Democrats to do in the Trump era? Hurwitz, 41, who spent seven years as Michelle Obama’s chief speechwriter after doing the same for President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton, decided to write for herself. Her book, “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism,” was published in September.

Mikhl Yashinsky: Yiddish Renaissance Man

Fluent in seven languages, Yashinsky, 31, has directed opera, taught Spanish, written and directed plays, and performed rap in Yiddish. This year, he appeared as Mordkhe the Innkeeper in the Folksbiene’s smash-hit revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, and now is starring in the Folksbiene’s revival of “The Sorceress.”

Adeena Sussman: Chef Of The Modern Middle East

It’s not all about hummus and falafel. In “Sababa,” her new cookbook, Sussman, 48, adds caramelized pineapple to labneh topped with sumac, flavors a caramel tart with tahini, and puts pomegranate juice into a Negroni. She lives in Tel Aviv but she was born in California, and the book was unilaterally hailed as one of 2019’s best.

Elliot Kukla: Pastor For The Planet

It’s been 13 years since Kukla became the first transgender rabbi ordained by a mainstream movement (Reform). Now 45, he leads the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, and is focused on healing both people (chronic disease) and the planet (climate change).

Dana Czapnik: New York Chronicler

Her debut novel, “The Falconer,” won praise from Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie and The Times. The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Czapnik, 40, writes so naturally about New York of the 1990s its the literary equivalent of natural athletic gifts.

Jordana Horn & Shannon Sarna: Mothers Of The Year

With nine, count’em nine children between them, Horn, 46, and Sarna, 37, launched a chatty podcast, “Call Your Mother,” that tackles some of the tough issues of Jewish parenting. They’ve discussed suicide, addiction, abortion, always speaking with intelligence, love and humor.

Jerry Nadler: Impeacher-in-Chief (No. 2)

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Nadler, 72, presided over the second wave of hearings that led to Trump’s impeachment. He has for 27 years represented the most Jewish district in the country, and he does so very…Jewishly.

Josh and Benny Safdie: The Hoop Dreamers

With their new film, “Uncut Gems,” the Safdies, 35 and 33, have gifted the world Adam Sandler’s most Jewish — and most complex — role yet. He plays a morally questionable diamond dealer, and the premiere party was — where else? — Katz’s Delicatessen.

Rachel Sumekh: The Supreme Swiper

As a student at UCLA, Sumekh felt badly that her unused meal-plan points were going to waste while some of her classmates were going hungry. Now 28, she has created a national nonprofit, Swipe Out Hunger, that is operating on 100 college campuses, where students can donate their extra points to those in need.

Catherine Cohen: The Comedy Chanteuse

A Houston native, Cohen, 28, leapt onto the comedy scene with musical monologues that pay jazzy, manic homage to anxiety, exhibitionism and her reproductive health. She hosts a weekly revue of young, diverse talent and has made scene-stealing appearances in HBO’s “High Maintenance” and Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

Irena Klepfisz: Keeper of the Bundist Flame

A trailblazing lesbian poet and activist, Kepfisz, 78, serves as a bridge between the pre-war Bund of her parents and 21st century scholars. She spent the Holocaust hidden in a Catholic orphanage, and has hardly been unseen since.

Brett Lockspeiser: The Torah Technologist

What is ancient is new again. Lockspeiser, 37, has no formal Jewish education, but has created a free digital library of our sacred texts, in English and Hebrew. The app is called Sefaria, and the colleague who nominated him said it has removed “millennia-old obstacles” to help “every Jew (and non-Jew) reengage with the texts.

Analia Bortz: Scholar Of The Human

Two weeks into medical school at the University of Buenos Aires, Bortz decided she wanted to be a rabbi. So she did both, graduating as a physician in 1990 and becoming the first woman ordained in South America four years later. She and her husband founded Cong. Or Hadash, outside of Atlanta, in 2003, and are planning to move to Israel next year.

Joel Benenson: Netanyahu’s Nemesis

He helped Barack Obama become president — twice — and this year tried to help Benny Gantz unseat the Israeli prime minister — also twice. Benenson, 67, started life as a journalist but decided he cared to much about the issues he was covering to watch from the sidelines.

Beatie Deutsch: Mighty Mom Of The Marathon

She ran the Tel Aviv marathon while seven months pregnant with her fifth child, and now is trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The only problem for Deutsch, 30, is that the event just got scheduled for a Saturday — she is Orthodox.

Tal Frieden: The Disobedient One

Never Again Action’s deeply Jewish protests this summer against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swept the country — and made real change. Frieden, 22, was among the group’s earliest activists, helping run protests to pressure the Wyatt Detention Facility in his hometown, Providence, R.I., to sever its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Carin Mrotz: Justice Fighter in the Far North

A longtime lefty in Minnesota, Mrotz, 43, has done a lot of training about anti-Semitism for progressive activists. This year, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a friend, was among her informal students. She is also a co-host of the political podcast, “Wrong About Everything.”

Sheila Katz: A Voice For Jewish Women

After publicly accusing Michael Steinhardt of sexual harassment, Katz, 36, became chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women. It has 90,000 members and tries to leverage Jewish values to make the case for changing policies and practices that hurt women and children.

Melina Matsoukas: The Camera Queen

She made music videos with Beyoncé! And, this year, Matsoukas, 38, had her feature-film debut, “Queen & Slim,” which stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a black couple made the subject of a national manhunt after Slim (Kaluuya) kills a police officer in self-defense.

Kerry Brodie: Chef To The Refugees

A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, Brodie, 29, now runs Emma’s Torch, a restaurant in Brooklyn. It is named for Emma Lazarus, whose words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty’s base welcomed generations of immigrants, and it is staffed by 70 refugees that Brodie has trained.

Yisroel Goldstein: The Rabbi Of Poway

When a white-nationalist gunman stormed his synagogue — and shot him in the finger — Goldstein, now 57, continued with his sermon, telling the congregation, “Am Yisrael Chai.” He retired after the shooting, with his sons taking over much of his work.

Benjamin Dreyer: Copyediting King

His surprise bestseller, “Dreyer’s English,” is a distinctly modern — and very funny — guide to editing and writing. Dreyer, 61, is the copy chief at Random House.

Emily Mayer: The Activism Activator

A day school graduate, Mayer, 28, is political director of IfNotNow, the group whose criticism of Israel the pro-Israel crowd fears most. The group had a high-profile year, with its campaign against Birthright Israel, confrontation of Democratic presidential candidates, partnership with the D.C. Dyke March, and general professionalization.

Nicholas Meyer: The Sleuth of Anti-Semitism

His detective story about anti-Semitism, “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols” is one of the year’s most prescient novels.Meyer, 73, who lives in Los Angeles, is an internationally renowned author and filmmaker.

Julian Edelman: The Patriot

Named Most Valuable Player of this year’s Super Bowl, Edelman, 33, may be the best Jewish person ever to play football. He is deepening his connections to Judaism too; he has made several trips to Israel, wore cleats with Hebrew lettering after the Tree of Life massacre, and once photoshopped himself catching a piece of matzah.

Howard Zucker: The Anti- Anti-Vaxxer

As head of the New York State Health Department, Dr. Zucker, 60, helped contain this year’s measles outbreaks in Orthodox neighborhoods. He spoke with rabbis by the roomful, visited religious summer camps and lobbied the legislature to eliminate the religious exemption for vaccination.

Alma Hernandez: Intersectional Politician

A member of the Arizona State Assembly, Hernandez, 25, spent her (short) activist career focused on issues connected to her own multi-faceted identity: immigration, health care and criminal justice.

Jeremy Borovitz: The Accidental Eyewitness

Rabbi Borovitz, 32, and his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, moved to Berlin this year to run cultural- and religious outreach programs for the cosmopolitan city’s millennial Jews. For Yom Kippur, they decided to take their flock out of the vibrant city to a small-town synagogue struggling to fill its pews. It was the same synagogue anti-Semites tried to shoot up during services.

Margot Kushel: Warrior For The Homeless

Dr. Kushel, 52, discovered through her research that the average age of the homeless population is in the mid-50s, a fact she said “should shock us as a nation.” She approaches the issue using Jewish values.

Moishe Ferencz: Supermarket Widower

His kosher store was the heart of the nascent Hasidic community in Jersey City, N.J., where customers came to talk politics and buy cholent. This month it became the community’s broken heart, after a couple with connections to an anti-Semitic strain of the Black Hebrew Israelites shot up the store, killing Ferencz’s wife and two others.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of the Forward in 2019. Before that, she spent more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, email rudoren@forward.com and sign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, “Looking Forward,” in your inbox.

Forward 50: Meet The Machers And Shakers Who Influenced, Intrigued And Inspired Us This Year

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