Jewish Journal

Rabbi Hier tops ‘Newsweek’ list of rabbis

by Amy Klein

Posted on Mar. 25, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Rabbi Marvin Hier is numero uno

Rabbi Marvin Hier is numero uno

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most influential American rabbi of them all?

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, according to a list published Monday in Newsweek. An article titled "American Jews: The List -- Choosing the Chosen," rates America's 50 most influential rabbis -- with three of the top five working in Los Angeles (a total of 11 Angelenos are named).

The list was not the idea of Newsweek , nor was it the result of a scientific survey; rather it is an account of the private rankings of just three men: Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony; Gary Ginsberg, an executive at News Corp.; and Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN, the Jewish TV Network.

"I think it opens up a great deal of discussion on what a rabbi is, what a Jewish leader is, and everyone defines it differently," Sanderson told The Journal.

He said Newsweek liked the idea that it was compiled by people working outside Jewish institutions.

The ratings of the top rabbis -- culled from a shortlist of 100 candidates over a few months' time-were based on a points system:

  • Are the rabbis known nationally/internationally? (20 points).
  • Do they have a media presence? (10 points);
  • Are they leaders within their communities? (10 points).
  • Are they considered leaders in Judaism or within their movements? (10 points).
  • Size of their constituency? (10 points).
  • Do they have political/social influence? (20 points).
  • Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career? (10 points) .
  • Have they made a "greater" impact? (10 points).

That system might explain some of the strange inclusions and the order of the ranking, such as that of controversial figure Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Yehuda Berg, who is listed fourth and described as Orthodox, although the denomination might rankle some in that movement). Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of "Kosher Sex" fame, ranks ninth.

"Obviously the most controversial is Yehuda Berg, but no one knew who he was 10 years ago, but now Kabbalah is part of the national conversation," Sanderson said. And as to Boteach, "the guy has written best-selling books, He has a TV show; he's everywhere. He's a media guy."

"I'm not judging who these rabbis are," Sanderson said. "But the reality is in terms of social and political spheres of influence in modern life, we looked at all these factors: rabbis who are authors, and rabbis who are pulpit heads, heads of denominations-rabbis who have the greatest spheres of influence."

Seventeen of the rabbis are listed as Orthodox, 10 as Conservative, 18 as Reform, three as Reconstructionist and two as Jewish Renewal rabbis. There are five female rabbis (including Angeleno Rabbi Naomi Levy).

The Los Angeles rabbis include: Hier ("one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head," said the list, which provided brief biographical information on each.), the Skirball Cultural Center's Founding President and Chief Executive Officer Uri D. Herscher (3), Berg (4), American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) President Robert Wexler (7), Valley Beth Shalom's Harold M. Schulweis (13), Sinai Temple David Wolpe (18), The Wiesenthal Center's Abraham Cooper (29), American Jewish University Rector and professor of philosophy Elliot Dorff (30), Aish Hatorah's Nachum Braverman (36), Nashuva's Naomi Levy (42), and Ohr Hatorah's Mordecai Finley (50). Finley is also Lynton's rabbi.

"Between 30 and 60 the differences are minute," Sanderson said. For example, Ikar's Rabbi Sharon Brous, who is often referred to an up-and-coming leader in the movement, "could have been 50 with an bullet," Sanderson said, adding that she will probably make the list next year.

But are they planning on doing it again next year?

"If it resonates, if it does what we want it to do, we will. I want it to open a discussion about Judaism today and the role of our communal leaders," Sanderson said. "We should be talking about these things because it's very reflective of the changes that are going on in the Jewish world and should be going on."

For some of the local rabbis, an appearance on the list came as a surprise.

"What list?" said Dorff of the American Jewish University, thinking it was the "Forward 50," which annually ranks the top 50 most influential Jews at the end of each year. After being informed that both he (as number 30) and Wexler made Newsweek's list, Dorff said, "I'm glad to be recognized, but that's not the reason why you do it."

Hier, who had been informed of the list, joked, "I promise I won't let it go to my head," and said that he took it as a "collective compliment" to the Simon Weisenthal Center and the work it was doing.

Hier also said he is glad so many Angelenos and rabbis from the West Coast are on the list.

"I think people on the East Coast will see it that there is Jewish life outside New York," Hier said.

But the list, of course, is subjective, he said. "You can't devote such a thing into a science. There are many great rabbis -- talmidei chachamin and great scholars-who were not on the list."

Although there were a number of Orthodox rabbis on the list, such as Yeshiva University's Rabbi Norman Lamm (44) and scholar Saul J. Berman (14), there were only a few ultra-Orthodox, such as Zalman Teitelbaum, the new leader of the Satmar Chasidic community in Williamsburg (25), and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky (2), leader of Chabad and its CEO.

"The criteria was not Jewish scholarship," Hier said. "There are many outstanding scholars [not on the list] but it's probably because they didn't know of them. It was compiled with a different criteria."

Not that he's complaining. "It's good to be on the list and it's certainly good to be No. 1, whatever the criteria are."

Rabbi Irwin Kula also made the list. Video courtesy JTN.
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