I guess the encouragement of griping is part of the sly logic of Newsweek’s “America’s Top 50 Rabbis List,” which was published yesterday. It’s the sixth year of the list and, while increasingly becoming part of the Jewish landscape, it still seems kind of odd. After all, how did a mainstream magazine manage to foment interest in such a picayune topic as communal Jewish leadership?
Of course, the answer is somewhat obvious: when Jews are in the national spotlight, for whatever reason, a conversation within the tribe is all but guaranteed. But surely it must be a mixed blessing for the leaders on the list — who probably suffer the strange fortune of having more non-Jews know their names now than Jews do. For the uncomfortable fact is that Jewish leaders, however important, are simply not household names for most Jews.
That’s not to take away from any of the leaders who made the list; after all, it is an influential bunch. Everyone from the young upstarts behind Mechon Hadar, the buzz-y independent Jewish learning group, to Shmuel Kamenetsky, the haredi rabbi who advocates “reparative therapy” for homosexuals and says that pedophilia within the Jewish community should be reported to rabbis first, not police, made the list.
Aside from the reality of Jewish communal life in America — which is that most Jews don’t know who their leaders are — there are other significant problems. One is fatigue; there’s only so much that can change on the list from year-to-year, and not surprisingly, the big news this year is that Rabbi David Wolpe, who leads one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, in Beverly Hills, took the one-spot. Last year, he was Number Two. And how’d he earn that bump? Apparently because in the past year, he got 25,000 new “fans” on Facebook. It must make Moses jealous.
To be sure, the problem isn’t with Wolpe — a contributor to this paper, and an extremely thoughtful rabbi. It’s with the increasing insignificance of a list made every year. Here’s one suggestion on how to change that: do it every other year, or maybe every five, even ten.
And another: cut the list by 40. Yes, 40. A list of the top ten wouldn’t only focus attention on what really are the most important issues in the American Jewish community — and who the most influential people on those topics are — it would prevent the default method of selection so far. As it stands now, the list is essentially given over to the highest leader at the largest Jewish organizations: Yehuda Krinsky (No. 2 on list, and the leader of Chabad); David Wexler (No. 6, president of the Conservative Movement’s American Jewish University in L.A.); Rick Jacobs (No. 7, head of the Reform Movement).
What would be vastly more significant is a few weeks of hard reporting — talking to Jews on the ground in major Jewish communities—and seeing who has had the biggest impacts in their lives. If that would limit the list to five even, instead of fifty, all the better. At least then we’d have a better idea of why their important, beyond just simply being elected president of X organization.
I don’t want to hate on the list entirely. After all, even if it inspires more complaints than compliments, it’s a good thing that Jews are being shown who their leaders are, in a venue — Newsweek/The Daily Beast — that’s impossible to ignore. But rather than keep churning out the thing year after year, and risk it becoming just another list no one bothers reading, out of fatigue and familiarity, best to put it on ice for a few years. Prune it a bit. Think about it who goes on it, and why, more seriously. Then, who knows? It may become more than something that merely grabs attention for week, then fades out of mind. It may actually have an impact.