One night some years ago, two powerful Jewish men in media, one from New York and one from Los Angeles, were walking together through the streets of Jerusalem when they hatched a little idea.
Michael Lynton, then CEO and co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and his longtime friend Gary Ginsberg, who served as a lawyer in the Clinton White House before becoming a vice president of News Corp. (and, consequently, a close personal adviser to Rupert Murdoch), were strolling around outside the King David Hotel when they noticed all “these little plaques” on the various buildings identifying the institution inside. “I remember talking to Gary about the fact that in certain other religions — most notably the Roman Catholic Church — there’s a central authority that determines doctrine, theology and policy,” Lynton recalled. But Jewish religious authority in the United States, he realized, “It’s a little bit of a mystery. Who are the people who determine these things? And then we thought: Wouldn’t it be fun, and a little bit mischievous, to put together a list of who these people are and rank order them?”
When the men returned from Israel, they decided to enlist some help. Since Lynton, now CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment, Inc., considered himself something of an outsider in the Jewish community, he sought an additional partner who knew the community more intimately. He called Jay Sanderson, who at the time was president of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) in Los Angeles and whom Lynton had known for many years. The timing proved propitious. Sanderson had been intensifying his involvement in Jewish communal life and, aware of Lynton’s power in Hollywood, had been industriously trying to engage him in Jewish causes. “So Michael calls me, and he says, ‘You know the Vanity Fair list of the most powerful people in Hollywood?’ ” Sanderson recalled in a recent interview. “ ‘What do you think about us doing a rabbis list?’ ”
[Related: Is it time to end ‘Top Rabbis’ list?]
Sanderson was intrigued, but also thought the idea was a little nuts. “He had this notion we’d do a list and it’d be in U.S. News & World Report,” Sanderson said. “I think it’s crazy, but I’m willing to entertain it, because it’s using the lens of rabbis to talk about Jewish issues and start a series of conversations.”
Over the next weeks and months, Sanderson, Lynton and Ginsberg began brainstorming over The List. “We were kind of like guys talking about World Series baseball. Like, who can name the most dead rock stars?” Sanderson said. “And I’m introducing them, I’m contextualizing rabbis — if you have a rabbi like Marvin Hier who literally can get the president of the United States on the telephone, as well as numbers of world leaders, and has a mailing list of over 100,000 and is winning Academy Awards — that defines a rabbi differently than the rabbis we grew up with.”
Sanderson proceeded to pull “three all-nighters” trying to develop criteria for evaluating rabbis. He came up with a point system, “some way to figure out who was No. 1 and who was No. 2,” and in doing so, began to reflect on the highly idiosyncratic role of rabbis in the 21st century. “I’m thinking to myself, if the role of rabbis has changed and it’s reflective of change in the Jewish world, imagine what a thought-provoking piece this could be if we did rank them. I drank the Kool-Aid. I still think there’s no way anyone’s going to print this list.”
But a short while later, Ginsberg invited Sanderson to his office in New York. When he arrived, Lynton was already on the phone and a stately mystery woman with lightning-colored hair inquired about the rabbis list. “Who are you?” Sanderson recalled asking. “I’m Lisa Miller, the religion editor of Newsweek, and I want to print the list.”
One year later, Miller would recount for Newsweek the thrill that followed that meeting: “The list ran the week before Passover, and before it came out, the machers” — as she called Lynton, Ginsberg and Sanderson — “conceded that they were having more than a little bit of wicked fun imagining the kind of storm that was about to rain down like so many frogs or locusts.”
And rain it did.
“That list is about penis size,” one Reform rabbi from Los Angeles complained.
“They’re looking at who’s famous, who’s a celebrity, and that’s not what being a rabbi is about,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein added.
“The essence of the rabbinate is in the intangibles and you can’t measure the intangibles,” another said.
This spring’s list, dubbed the “Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Top 50 Rabbis” since the demise of Newsweek magazine’s print edition, is due out soon and by now has become a tradition — albeit a highly controversial one. “To reduce a calling like the rabbinate to this Americanized competitive reality binge diminishes its whole purpose,” Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, said. Critics find it odd that the subjective assessment of no more than three or four people in any given year — none of them with ecclesiastical experience — has become the prevailing barometer of rabbinic achievement. “That list isn’t significant,” said Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. “The most important rabbi on that list is No. 51.”
Nevertheless, being on the list is now one of the most cited accomplishments for the rabbis it names — inscribed at the top of Wikipedia pages and proudly pronounced in bios and speaking introductions, even as it has alienated some colleagues. For those fortunate enough to make the list, the acknowledgment is flattering and can be professionally beneficial: “It grants you a certain public recognition and credibility, and, most important, if you have something to say, it makes your voice louder,” one top-ranked rabbi said.
But for the vast array of rabbis left out, the list can have a pernicious downside. “They’re looking for influential people, which means celebrated, not sanctified; celebrated, not compassionate; celebrated, not deeply spiritual,” said Feinstein, who has been on the list four times. “Now why a rabbi would use that as a criteria is beyond me. I think it’s sheer foolishness.”
While critics claim that the list promotes secular values over spiritual ones, the list’s makers claim it offers a map of the Jewish-American landscape. It also seems to encourage the idea that a rabbi matters more if he or she pursues public attention. By rewarding so-called newsmakers, “the list itself actually redefines the goals of the rabbinate,” Klein said. Stardom has become the new standard. But how did a measure that many think is arbitrary, inappropriate and misunderstood manage to impose a Hollywood-style hierarchy onto a holy calling?
“I’m the first person to acknowledge that it’s extremely problematic to rank clergy,” admitted Abigail Pogrebin, who has worked on the list since 2011; this year, since the addition of a professional reporter, she is one of four people involved in the selection process. “You could even say it’s un-Jewish to give people numbers, as if there’s any real meaning to them. I can’t really defend that.”
Pogrebin is a New York-based journalist and television producer of some prominence, with credits on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” and is also the author of the 2005 book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” Her book, also an exercise in distinction, profiles 62 of “the most accomplished Jews in America,” according to a blurb on Pogrebin’s Web site, and its acclaim is what brought her into the orbit of the organized Jewish community. Her discernment of Jewish “stars” elicited speaking invitations from synagogues across the country, and consequently sparked her interest in the purview of the religious world. “I became a little bit of a rabbi groupie,” she admitted.
Pogrebin caught the attention of Lynton and Ginsberg, who recruited her to do the list (she is also a longtime close friend of Lynton’s wife, Jamie). At the time, after four annual lists, another big change was afoot: Sanderson was pursuing the top post at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (to which he was later named), and needed to bow out. Suddenly, he aspired to the “community-building business” and the divisive ranking of rabbis didn’t quite jibe with his new mission. “I thought the list had run its course,” Sanderson said recently, brushing it off like a bad habit. “I don’t want anything negative now. I’m in a different role.”
But though it was Lynton and Ginsberg who conceived the list and whose names are most closely associated with it, they vested the bulk of the work it required with Sanderson and then Pogrebin. And from the first list, in 2007, they introduced a broad set of criteria by which they measured rabbinic influence: Is the rabbi a leader within his or her community or denomination? Has he or she made an impact on the Jewish community? Are they nationally renown? Do they have a strong media presence or political connections?
Sanderson and Pogrebin both claim they approached the task with sincerity and seriousness, though when asked about the specifics of their system, both replied with some ambivalence and were, at times, defensive. For example, how did they decide which rabbis to consider? How did they measure the precise “impact” of one’s influence? And what metrics were used to justify ranking one rabbi over another?
To be fair, the list makers have never called their process a science. To the contrary, they have been exceedingly transparent about the list’s subjectivity from the start and never made claims about methodical integrity. Both in Newsweek and during subsequent interviews, they have insisted their system is “unscientific,” “arbitrary,” “subjective” and “inexact.” And they openly state that their interest is more in showmanship than spiritual virtuosity. As religion editor Miller wrote in the preamble to the second list, in 2008: The makers “ranked rabbis according to their ability to raise money, publicize causes, sell books or chat on television news shows — not according to their ability to lead, inspire, teach or console.”
But even when questioned about their methods, a confusing portrait emerged. Sanderson said he compiled “thick, thick binders” of research on the rabbis, “some done informally, some formally.” For the first list, Sanderson said he did not consult with any rabbis, though that process would eventually change. Did he read every book that rabbis under consideration had written? “No, but I found them; I researched how many copies sold; I read reviews; I saw whoever was on television.” And since his own criteria cited the size of a congregation, did he call every congregation of every rabbi on the list to compare? “I randomly called most of them,” Sanderson said.
In 2008, when Newsweek wanted to freshen up the list, Ginsberg suggested they create a list of “Top Pulpit Rabbis” as a companion list to the influentials. “That was a much harder thing,” Sanderson admitted. “You can’t do that without knowing these rabbis.” Sanderson said he visited, or had visited in the past, every congregation of every rabbi who appeared on the pulpit list (Lynton and Ginsberg did not). Did he retain notes or have receipts from these visits? “No, they’re probably in my garage or something.” Did he hear every rabbi on the list give a sermon? “Most of them I heard. Actually, I think almost all of them; I didn’t see all of them in person, but I went on Web sites and watched sermons online.”
“I would never say that I did this journalistically,” Sanderson said. “I tried to be responsible.”
So, in the end it comes to a contradiction: the list should be authoritative enough to justify its existence, but subjective enough that its creators should not be held accountable for what it means. After Sanderson left, Lynton and Ginsberg hoped Pogrebin would add some journalistic heft to the process. If the original list came together based on Sanderson’s instincts, Pogrebin said she wanted to vet those instincts.
But, she confessed, it was a daunting task. “I was inheriting a list that I took seriously,” Pogrebin said. “I was asking all the questions one asks as a reporter who is trying to gauge impact and influence, but I was doing that knowing that we have no scientific, survey-like standard that we’re holding people to. I’d be lying to you if I said there was anything exact about this process. There are no charts; there are no measures.”
Ginsberg, now communications chief for Time Warner, said: “Over time, as [the list] has become more institutionalized, I think we’ve become better at it.” Early on, he noted, “We were a little too New York-L.A. centric, too skewed toward traditional pulpits, it was probably overly male-dominated. [But] you learn from your mistakes. You become more thorough. We have a better database of rabbis now; we’ve increased our geographical reach, and our sensibilities have become more refined and sophisticated.”
For the first time this year, Lynton and Ginsberg hired Gabrielle Birkner, a former reporter from The Forward and The New York Jewish Week, to serve as a researcher. Asked what qualified her to evaluate rabbis, Birkner replied in an e-mail: “What qualifies a food critic to review a restaurant?”
Despite the originators’ desire to evolve, however, Pogrebin said her freedom to shape the list has always been restricted. Although she made her mark by adding written capsules explaining why each rabbi was chosen, Lynton and Ginsberg maintained that there should be some consistency to the list, in order to lend integrity to past decisions. To change it too much might cast doubt on previous choices.
At the same time, it had to be kept “fresh” enough to justify issuing a new one each year. Ginsberg pointed out: “As the country has moved rather dramatically toward greater acceptance of gay marriage and gay rights has become a much more mainstream issue than it was, somebody like Steve Greenberg” — who became the country’s first openly gay Modern Orthodox rabbi — “should be recognized for some of the groundbreaking work that he’s doing.” So, is Greenberg being recognized for the work that he’s doing — or because he fills some zeitgeist-y niche?
“I think both,” Ginsberg said.
In the beginning, the list makers chose to honor rabbinic legacies that helped shape American Judaism — like Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, for example, whose books on Jewish literacy, wisdom and values are the go-to tomes on the subject for much of American Jewry. For five years, the list reflected his enduring achievement — 2007 (No. 21); 2008 (No. 21); 2009 (No. 15); 2010 (No. 15); 2011 (No. 15) – but in 2012, Telushkin lost his place.
“Sometimes someone goes off not because they’re not important anymore, but because we want to be able to show some new blood,” Pogrebin said. “What’s tricky is to start saying why someone’s 35 or 29.”
Even with their populist tweaks, the list has remained more or less static. For example, of the top 10 rabbis listed in 2012, seven have appeared on the list every year since 2007. What’s changed most is how the list’s impact has affected the list itself — now that it’s a thing, people lobby to be a part of it.
“One of the dirty little secrets,” one of the list makers said, requesting anonymity, “is how effective it is to lobby, because you feel badly. If someone is really begging, I just kind of put him or her on. Like, if it means that much, I don’t want to be the person that denies you.”
Almost all of the list makers had stories about rabbis vying for a spot on the list. Sometimes the rabbis lobbied for themselves (Pogrebin recalled one heart-wrenching three-page letter); sometimes a member of a congregation would make an appeal (Sanderson recalled being approached in public), other times a highly ranked rabbi would put in a good word, or even, Ginsberg said, an influential congressman.
“We’re always looking for data,” Ginsberg said. “So we’re gonna take it seriously if a political leader writes to us and says, ‘You need to consider X rabbi who is one of my constituents and here are the five reasons why.’ It won’t be dispositive to our decision, but it’s something we’ll obviously evaluate. Now, I don’t want to invite hundreds of politicians to start inundating us with recommendations,” he joked.
Pogrebin explained that, in the end, it has been her personal experience of Judaism and of these various rabbis that has informed her decisions the most.
“Not to say I’m some Super Jew at all, ’cause I’m like a neophyte,” she said of attending Bronfman conferences, LimmudLA and studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Mechon Hadar. “But I’ve seen a lot of these people. I’m not just relying on what I get on the Web.”
Lynton’s rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Los Angeles, has appeared on the list once (“I thought it was interesting that I found myself on it, and that I found myself not on it, but it didn’t really mean much either way,” Finley said). Ginsberg’s rabbi, with whom he is close but did not name, is not on the list. Yet Ginsberg described him as “beloved.”
“I am entirely aware that there are incredible rabbis in small synagogues everywhere who are doing exactly what a rabbi should be doing,” Pogrebin said, “which is preaching, offering pastoral care and attentiveness, and counseling and teaching, and those things should not feel unsung because they haven’t been in the newspaper.
“That is absolutely a flaw of this construct,” she added, “that someone who hasn’t been in the media somehow isn’t going to be on our radar unless someone mentions them to us.”
Maybe the integrity of the list-making process wouldn’t matter as much if it hadn’t been published in a prominent publication like Newsweek — now absorbed into The Daily Beast Web site, but which had once had a reputation for serious journalism. According to Miller, though, the list was simply “a fun idea.” “We knew it was going to be provocative. We knew it was going to generate a lot of conversation in the Jewish world about what’s important, like: What matters? Is it money? Is it spirituality? Is it power? Is it number of people who follow you? Number of books you sell? Is it political power?”
Although Miller is no longer an editor with Newsweek-The Daily Beast (she now contributes to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column and is a contributing editor for New York Magazine), she said, “Newsweek at the time was definitely a place for serious journalism, but it was not above having a little bit of fun. And I think [the list offered] an important set of questions in that sort of delectable package. I don’t think every serious journalist thinks stories need to be either important or delectable — I think they can be both.”
Asked whether she felt the Newsweek imprimatur lent authority to the list, even though no one on the magazine’s staff took part in its selection, Miller said, “I was concerned that we be extremely clear about how the list was arrived at, and very clear about its methodology.”
So what, in the end, does it truly mean when rabbis claim the status of being on the list? “That’s their problem,” Miller said.
Sanderson put it this way: “When I see ads that say, ‘Newsweek’s number whatever rabbi,’ it makes me laugh. It makes me feel like, ‘I guess I’m Newsweek,’ because Newsweek didn’t vet this list.”
Yet each year the list continues to create waves in the Jewish world, making headlines both in the United States and in Israel. And even while many rabbis who make the list like to pretend that they don’t care, or that it’s all so very silly, they still like to remind us that it’s there: IKAR members mocked their own Rabbi Sharon Brous during a “Star Wars”-themed Purim shpiel last month, when a video skit declared Brous (costumed as Princess Leia) “indeed very powerful — at least according to Newsweek and her mother.”
But there are many rabbis — on and off the list — who don’t find it very funny.
“I hate that list,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein said during an interview. “I’ve had friends who are really, really good rabbis hurt by that list,” he said. “I know people whose jobs were threatened because they didn’t make the list and that meant they weren’t as important as the synagogue wanted them to be.”
But despite his powerful feelings on the subject, Feinstein initially resisted talking about it, fearing doing so might seem an endorsement of some kind, or bring the list further attention. It took several attempts to persuade him to talk. “Most of what happens in the rabbinate is private,” Feinstein said. “What makes a rabbi a good rabbi is that he or she is willing to get up in the middle of the night and go to the hospital and sit with a family and help a loved one die.” Of the many rabbis I spoke to, Feinstein is the only one I found to have made the list who refuses to celebrate it in any way. There is no mention of it in his bio, and he has instructed his staff not to promote it on the synagogue’s Web site.
“For some reason, we Americans have this love of contests, so we turn politics into sport, and we like to run races, and now you’re running rabbis against each other? On what basis does one judge a rabbi? The most important rabbi in the world is the one who is with you on the night your mother dies and holds you while you cry. Nothing else matters. Nothing,” he said.
Another highly ranked rabbi who requested anonymity so as not to appear “ungrateful” suggested that the list has little more than a shallow upside, while its drawbacks can be severe. “Inasmuch as the list encourages achievement and creates pride in congregations and rabbis, it’s good; inasmuch as it encourages competition, envy, invidious comparisons, hurt feelings and unfair measuring of one spiritual leader to another, it’s not good. And there’s something essentially antithetical about ranking people whose principal calling is supposed to be a spiritual one.”
Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah on the Westside of Los Angeles, might be described as one of Jewish Los Angeles’ more unsung heroes. She runs a large Reform congregation, which she has helped to revitalize, and is also a published novelist. She has never appeared on the Newsweek list, which she said, can sting. “I would love to be in such a place of holiness that things like that [list] didn’t bother me,” she said. “But it’s only human to want to be recognized, and when a list like that comes out, it does make you question yourself.” She explained, “I write fiction and poetry, and I know that my medium for expressing my beliefs is cherished by the people it touches, but it’s not the same as being on talk shows or on the news. I’m not a politico rabbi. But a list like that makes me pause and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be writing poetry; maybe I shouldn’t be working on my next novel,’ because maybe what’s valuable is not that.”
The degree to which various rabbis take the list seriously varies, often according to whether or not they are on it or how highly they are ranked. One rabbi consistently ranked among the top 10 said, “People who have either appeared on list and or done well on the list, it certainly helps their careers: The ability to put it on your resume makes a tremendous difference, and it gets you noticed in other places.”
It can also help during an introduction, he said. “When someone says, ‘He was ranked by Newsweek as one of America’s most influential rabbis,’ that sounds better than, ‘This is the rabbi of such and such temple.’ Think of what it did for Sharon Brous to be the highest woman on the list. Any distinction like that is professionally helpful, and sometimes, professionally very helpful because people don’t know how to evaluate rabbis, and this now becomes a calling card.”
Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, has appeared on the list twice, but said it hasn’t advanced her career “one iota.” Before she appeared on the list for the first time in 2011, she wrote a critique of it on the Huffington Post, calling it “hierarchical and gendered.” “It’s lovely to be noticed and be on it, but it doesn’t change the fact that the list is a problem. No matter who’s on or who’s off, it’s bad for rabbinate, because it sets up competition between and among rabbis.”
Geller, of course, is widely recognized as a pioneer: She was the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in the United States and the first female to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. Geller is aware that her path has been an inspiration to many, but she stops short of extrapolating her power into any general prominence. “You might argue that I’m influential simply because I was ordained in 1976,” she said modestly. “It doesn’t mean that I’m a great rabbi. It simply means that I’m old.” And anyway, she added, “The only list that really matters is God’s list.”
“Frankly what’s wrong with the list is that people who have lower profile positions go unrecognized precisely because their congregants are not connected to the people making these decisions,” said Rabbi Jack Moline of Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va. He was ranked the third best pulpit rabbi in the country in 2008 before his influence was deemed to have waned and he fell to No. 26 in 2010, No. 35 in 2011, until finally, in 2012, he got the boot. He claims the list is only good for bragging rights and said it hasn’t helped him professionally (“People offered me congratulations, nobody offered me a raise”).
“One of the things I love about being a rabbi, particularly in a city like Los Angeles,” Klein said, “is that I know that when people come into my doors that they need what we’re offering — a respite from the plastic, fast-paced world that they live in, a palace in time built on moments and sacred encounters — so to try and quantify all of that?”
The idealized conversations the list makers ardently hoped for now seem to revolve around trends in the rabbinate, such as the increased use of social media, the rise of female rabbis and interfaith work. And, at least since Pogrebin added her written explanations, it does seem to communicate the diverse makeup of a 21st century rabbinate. The makers suggest that this gives the list an inspirational quality, providing young rabbis or aspiring rabbis with the dream dust to realize their wildest ambitions. But beyond that, what good does it do?
“What I did begin to really believe in is the sense that we’re telling people what’s going on in the Jewish world, because the average Jew has no idea,” Pogrebin said. The problem though, as Geller pointed out, is that recognizing only rabbis does a supreme disservice to the rest of the Jewish community — the cantors, administrators, educators, lay leaders and more — whom the list patently ignores.
Still, the list makers insist they are well intentioned. “I may be Pollyanna-ish about this, but I was kind of hoping it would spur people to have the same kind of Jewish awakening I did,” Pogrebin said. But when Lynton and Ginsberg were asked whether the list it had done anything to enrich their own Jewish lives, their answers were disappointing. Lynton said, “I looked at [David] Wolpe’s lectures and debates online as a result of this, and read his books; [Yehuda] Krinsky I met as a result of this — but he came to visit me, I didn’t reach out to him.
“It’s like I’m living in a vacuum,” Lynton added. “I’m not even aware of how the list does affect the Jewish community. I got what I wanted done probably three or four years into the process, and there were frequent moments when Gary and I said, ‘Maybe we should stop, because now we know.’ And it doesn’t move around that much. But at this point, more than anything else, it’s being done because people have said to Abby [Pogrebin], and she has told us, that this is important to that world, or at least people think that it’s something that should continue, so we keep it going.”
By the end of multiple interviews with the list makers, however, I still was not clear what their non-methodical, “exhaustive and very thorough,” seriously considered but really made-up, impossible-to-measure-metrics were telling them about rabbis. There seemed so much equivocation: They’re not qualified, but they’re not flip. The list is subjective, but they research in order to “discover.” The list is objective, because the makers have no agenda. They get “almost zero reaction,” but they’re proud that it’s valued. It matters, but it doesn’t. It’s served its purpose, but they continue.
“Here’s what I want to know,” one highly ranked rabbi said to me. “What I really care about, honestly, like deep down, if you asked me what do I care about on the list, is I want to know how other rabbis feel. That’s what matters to me.”
In the end, it seems even those who make the list feel insecure about what it means. Do their colleagues believe they deserve to be there? Rabbis, after all, are partly performers, and just like the rest of us have the need to be recognized for their gifts.
But Feinstein believes the presence of the list makes the rabbinate harder. For those who work devotedly and go unrecognized, he said, it “threatens their spirit and enthusiasm and strength.” And for those who are idolized as stars, “it steals their hearts away.”
“I wish this thing would die a quiet death,” Feinstein said, sounding melancholy and resigned. “It’s hurting my colleagues, it’s hurting my friends; it’s hurting the community. If you can make it go away, you’ll do the Jewish people a favor. I think the community owes its rabbis something better.”