Last spring, NEWSWEEK published a list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, created and compiled by three nice (and rich and powerful) Jewish media big shots who, it seemed, didn't have quite enough to do. The aforementioned big shots (or machers, if you will) were Gary Ginsberg, an executive at NewsCorp.; Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, and Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions. Triggered by their long friendship and mutual interest in the future of American Judaism, the three men had gotten their BlackBerrys together and come up with a completely subjective and nonscientific formula which they used to rank America's rabbis. The list ran the week before Passover, and before it came out, the machers conceded that they were having more than a little bit of wicked fun imagining the kind of storm that was about to rain down like so many frogs or locusts. Jews love traditions; the second annual list is published herewith.
The fallout from last year was impressive. Rabbis who were on the list, having memorized their ranking and, in some cases, issued press releases, proceeded to pretend they didn't care. Jewish blogs and regional Jewish papers weighed in, argued and nitpicked. One commentator called the list "definitely meaningless" and "fairly accurate." Another critiqued the machers for not including the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson who, though deceased, is believed to be the messiah among many members of the Lubavitcher sect.
Mostly, though, the criticism fell into two categories. One group of critics derided the appearance of Yehuda Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles (of Madonna fame), at No. 4 on the list. "Yehuda Berg? WTF?" wrote a commentator on the Web site Jewschool. The second criticism was weightier. All across the Internet, people wondered out loud whether "influence" was an appropriate measure for a rabbi. The machershad ranked rabbis according to their ability to raise money, publicize causes, sell books or chat on television news shows—not according to their ability to lead, inspire, teach or console.
Luckily (or unluckily), the machers took this criticism to heart. This year, in addition to their updated “influential” list, they have produced a list of the top 25 pulpit rabbis in America, rabbis they believe have what it takes to lead American Jews into the 21st century. (Full disclosure: my own congregational rabbi is on the pulpit rabbi list.)
These are trying times for American Jewry. The number of people who call themselves Jewish has dropped by nearly half since 1972, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, and nearly 60 percent of American Jews go to synagogue just once a year or never. The pulpit list is an effort to recognize people who are looking at the question of what it means to be Jewish in new and interesting ways, says Sanderson. Rabbi Sharon Brous, who is on both lists, is a 34-year-old rabbi who started a congregation in Los Angeles just four years ago—which has grown to 370 families. Committed to social justice, Brous requires that every member of her synagogue have a "sacred" relationship with the community—which can be demonstrated through donations of time, money or creative energy. "Many people want to engage in ritual and spiritual development but they're not looking into the traditional institutions to do so," she says. Case in point: Yehuda Berg is still on the influentials list—but he's dropped to No. 11.