April 23, 2009
My good friends Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg and I have had an ongoing conversation about Judaism, the changing role of the rabbi and our collective Jewish future. Three years ago, Newsweek magazine published our list of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America for the first time. There have now been three of these lists as well as two others, the 25 Best Pulpit Rabbis and the 25 Most Vibrant Congregations.
Now clearly we are not experts and we have never professed to be. We are three people who come from very different Jewish backgrounds, but we share a deep commitment to the community. At the beginning, we had hoped that the lists would trigger a conversation, some healthy and vigorous debate.
And guess what — we have more than accomplished our goals. Newspapers, Web sites and bloggers from around the world have become preoccupied with the lists. Jewish communal leaders and rabbis (on and off the list) have joined the debate.
Of course, we have been criticized and the lists have been dissected. There have been some personal attacks and some of them have been unfounded. But we compile these lists with open eyes, open minds and, to be totally honest, a hint of mischievousness.
One criticism seems to follow us every year, and it’s the one that galls me the most: The lists are too Los Angeles-centric. I’ve been hearing that gripe for three years, from The Forward and several East Coast-based bloggers, and, to quote from the movie “Network,” “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Los Angeles has a great, organized Jewish community with innovative leadership and some of the most important Jewish institutions in America. It’s time for us to recognize our community’s strengths and let Chicago, Boston and New York know that the Jewish future is being formed here in Los Angeles.
Over the past decade, cities across the country have been searching for “cutting edge” programs and trying anything and everything that smells “transformative.” Here in sunny Los Angeles, “cutting edge” and “transformative” are in our communal DNA.
So what’s the problem? First of all, we don’t really know how good we have it. We need to get the sun out of our eyes and look around. We need to experience the best of Los Angeles’ Jewish community and then spread the word — first here and then nationwide.
Let’s invite the naysayers to tour the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance, spend a Friday night at IKAR, Nashuva or B’nai David-Judea. They should sit down with Rabbis Ed Feinstein, David Wolpe, Nachum Braverman and Steven Leder and spend an afternoon with students at American Jewish University, Shalhevet, Milken and New Community Jewish High School. We have created extraordinary models here, like Bet Tzedek Legal Services, the Zimmer Children’s Museum, Vista del Mar and Big Sunday and the trailblazing Jewish Community Foundation — to name a few. It’s time for us to be a model for every Jewish community in America. We can and should lead. There has never been a more important time in Jewish life.
We need to learn some valuable lessons from Hollywood. Instead of selling the American Dream, we need to focus on selling the Jewish Dream. And we have the tools to do it. Los Angeles embraces every Jew, and every Jew has a home. This is truly an open community. It used to be that this was considered the last frontier. Many thought Jews left their homes in New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston to leave their pasts behind. We have proven that that is a myth. This is a community of immigrants who brought their traditions with them and have reinvented them.
Our best and brightest institutions reflect that reinvention and that openness to new ideas and to Jews of all backgrounds. Let’s be honest — we’re a young community that still has growing pains but is propelled by youthfulness. This isn’t your grandfather’s Jewish community, but we do still honor him (and your grandmother) by linking to our past not depending on it.
It’s time. When the fictional character Howard Beale had had enough, he opened his window, stuck out his head and yelled, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.” I propose that this Friday afternoon right before Shabbat, we all open our windows, take a deep breath and remind ourselves of what a great Jewish community we have. After all, this is Los Angeles and Howard Beale lived in New York. l