Monday, November 12, 2007

Examining the Forward 50

Each year the Forward newspaper compiles its Forward 50 list of Jewish people who are "doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves." And each year the critics come out to denounce the Forward for its choices. The Orthodox think there should be more Orthodox rabbis on the list. The liberals think there should be more liberals on the list. And so on.

You can read the criticism of the Forward 50 on the comments page at the Forward or at the JTA Blog. I actually think it's a pretty good list this year with some interesting choices. I am, however, in agreement with most of the critics in my surprise that Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow ("Superbad") were chosen as Top Picks. They've made some funny movies together and are both Jewish, but have they really fulfilled the Forward's criteria?

It makes sense that Sheldon Adelson was one of the top picks. He's given away a lot of money this year. I was very impressed with the additions at Yad Vashem I saw this summer that are a result of his mega-philanthropy, and Birthright Israel will be able to get thousands of young people off the wait list because of his generosity. I would have also liked to see Bill Davidson make the list after his $75 million gift to Hadassah Hospital this year, in addition to his financial commitment to the field of Jewish education. Philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman both made the list, and deservedly so. I heard Lynn speak last week in Phoenix along with Sandy Cardin, the president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. With her strategic philanthropy, Lynn Schusterman really is making an impact on the Jewish community.

I also feel that Bob Aronson, Detroit's Federation chief and the new interim head of the Steinhardt Foundation, is deserving of his inclusion in the Forward 50. His praises were spelled out very well in the paragraph about his accomplishments in the Detroit Jewish community and beyond.

Many of the Jewish leaders who made the list come as no surprise -- Abe Foxman, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Ruth Messinger, Ron Lauder, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Rabbi Steve Gutow. After attending this year's AIPAC Policy Conference, it comes as no surprise to me that Howard Kohr made the list. AIPAC has been very successful under Kohr's leadership. Not to mention that he came in sixth (ahead of both Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice) in GQ's prestigious list of the 50 most influential individuals in Washington, so how could he not make the Forward's list.

Last year's Forward 50 had many Conservative rabbis on the list including Elliot Dorff, Sharon Brous, Jill Jacobs, and Irwin Kula. This year, there were not as many Conservative rabbis, but I was happy to see that Rabbi Morris Allen made the list. Rabbi Allen is at the forefront of the Hechsher Zedek Commission, looking into the ethical and environmental implications of kosher food. I think Irwin Kula should have made the list again this year as the response to his book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life has been tremendous. The new dean of the JTS rabbinical school, Rabbi Danny Nevins, also should have made the list as he was the main author of the teshuva that paved the way this year for gay and lesbian rabbis in the Conservative Movement.

Compiling a list of only fifty Jewish leaders and visionaries is no simple task. Everyone will have their choices for who was not included but should have been. I would have liked to see Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), Jon Stewart, and Red Sox Gold Glove winner Kevin Youkilis make the list. I also think that with his autobiography being published, Alan Greenspan should have made the list this year. Also missing were Noah Feldman (NY Times Magazine article criticized Orthodoxy and sparked debate), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder), Jay Michaelson (Zeek creator who criticized Michael Steinhardt in a public memo published in the Forward), and Josh Bolton (White House Chief of Staff).

Many have called Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen's inclusion a speculative choice. I think that Chancellor Eisen was a good choice in the religion category as he is truly leading a renaissance in the Conservative Movement. He may still be getting used to his new office in Manhattan, but he has already proven himself over the course of the past year as Chancellor-elect. However, a speculative choice in my opinion was the first individual listed in this year's Forward 50. Michael Mukasey, who has been US Attorney General for all of two days, really hasn't had the chance to prove himself yet. But it will be interesting to see what they write about him next year.

I am certainly looking Forward to next year's top fifty.

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