Once is lucky. Twice is nice. Three times—well, anyone can tell you that's a tradition. It is a great pleasure, then, to unveil the third annual installment of what we at NEWSWEEK fondly call the "hot rabbis list." Created, maintained and revised by three Jewish media tycoons—Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton, News Corp. executive vice president Gary Ginsberg and Jewish Television Network CEO Jay Sanderson—the list ranks the 50 most influential rabbis in America based on an unscientific algorithm. Proximity to powerful people and opinion leaders, visibility in national media, size of congregation and good works all count.
Last year the tycoons tapped Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as No. 1. This year the list is reshuffled to reflect the new president's priorities and the economic crisis. The top spot goes to David Saperstein, the social-justice advocate who sits on President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The No. 3 spot goes to Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, who angrily called the Bernie Madoff scandal "an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy." For the full list, go to Newsweek.com.
In their wisdom, the power brokers have added another list to this year's edition: the 25 Most Vibrant Congregations. Most synagogues, Sanderson explains, are built on a postwar model: you pay your dues, you go to shul, you listen to the rabbi pray. While affiliation among Orthodox congregations is on the rise, and flat among Reform denominations, Conservative affiliation fell by 27 percent from 1990 to 2000, and has since continued to decline, says Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College. Now a number of young rabbis, many of them trained in the conservative tradition, are striking out on their own, founding smaller, nondenominational congregations that aggressively imagine new ways to "do Jewish." You don't have to know Hebrew; you don't even have to know if you believe in God. They meet in people's living rooms or in coffee shops. They rely on traditional music and prayer to provide members with what Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, who is 32 and whose Seattle-based congregation, Kavana, is on the most-vibrant list, calls "an unmediated experience of Judaism."
The most established of the vibrant congregations are built on a different model: the megachurch. Rabbi David Wolpe (No. 12 on the most influential list), heads Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (also on the most-vibrant list) where 1,800 young people come to worship on Friday nights, lured by the euphoric music and dance—and the socializing afterward. Wolpe says that several years ago, when he began thinking about how to grow successful synagogues, he reached out to the master, none other than Rick Warren. Just as Warren argued that the mainline churches were losing members because their styles were outdated, Wolpe believes that "in many congregations, prayer is somewhat deadened and deadening … because the music is less accessible." Further, Wolpe realized, Jews with little or no religious affiliation were intimidated by going to temple. "When they walk into a synagogue they don't know if they're doing it right. They feel incompetent, stupid. Unless we can structure it so that we have open borders, they aren't going to come." A testament to Wolpe's success: Warren sometimes shows up on Friday nights. And he's not even Jewish.