American Jews: The List—Choosing the Chosen

Michael Lynton was on a conference call recently when his assistant interrupted: Sen. Chuck Schumer was on the other line. Normally Lynton, who is chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, would take a call from the senator. But not this time. "We were so in the froth," Lynton says by way of apology; he asked his assistant to take a message.

To paraphrase Jewish mothers around the globe: what could be so important? At the moment of Schumer's call, Lynton was on the phone with his friends and fellow power brokers Gary Ginsberg, an executive at News Corp., and Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN, a Hollywood production company that makes Jewish TV programs. Together, they were putting the finishing touches on their pet project: a list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. Over the past six months, Lynton, Ginsberg and Sanderson have been refining, revising and rejiggering their list with the kind of mania other men reserve for fantasy baseball. Is the list subjective? Yes. Is it mischievous in its conception? Definitely. "It's interesting," adds Ginsberg, "to see who speaks for Jews in America today."

The list, published for the first time in NEWSWEEK, is sure to be controversial, in spite of the 100-point grading and ranking system the three men devised to justify their choices. The top spot goes to Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But No. 4 is Yehuda Berg, spiritual adviser at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, an outfit whose authentic Jewishness many Jews dispute. At least two lesbian rabbis made the list, as did the CEO of the Lubavitch Chabad movement. Lynton's own congregational rabbi made the list; Ginsberg's and Sanderson's did not. "I assume I'm going to get into trouble," says Sanderson, who did most of the research himself. "It's our point of view," adds Lynton, "You're going to have some people who didn't make the list who should have, but that's part of the fun."

The idea was Lynton's. He grew up in a nonobservant home and, like many people, became interested in religion when he had children. Last summer he and Ginsberg traveled to Israel together with their families, and one evening they began musing about the diversity of Jewish experience in America; around the High Holy Days, Lynton approached Sanderson for help. In conversation, all three convey both an earnest desire to launch a debate about the future of American Judaism and a boyish joy at the diabolical fun they've made for themselves. Once the controversy dies down, maybe they can get back to their day jobs.