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