March 14, 2013
Is the Newsweek rabbis list good for the Jews?
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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.