What the Top 50 Rabbis List Says About Us

This is a guest post by Alex Joffe.  This article was first published on April 4, 2012 as “Reading Between the Lists” by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbi Morris Allen jumping napkin rope at Leora and Michael Itman's wedding. Now THAT's a hip Rabbi.

As long as humans have been writing, humans have been making lists and ranking things.  Some lists are trivial, some significant, but all are instructive, speaking first about the prejudices and interests of their creators.  The new Daily Beast/Newsweek list of “America’s Top 50 Rabbis for 2012” is, like most American lists, whether of rabbis, cars, or colleges, designed to shape reality as much as reflect it.
The list, complied by Abigail Pogrebin, Gary Ginsberg, and Michael Lynton, showcases the American compulsion to treat all facets of life as a competition.  It aims to capture the newsworthiness and “impact on Judaism” of rabbis, as well as their media presence, leadership, and size of constituencies.  The authors correctly make no apologies for their subjectivity and offer the disclaimer that they “never expected it to be taken as seriously as it is.” This is unlike, say, the U.S. News & World Report listings of colleges or hospitals, which are taken deadly seriously by their subjects and by consumers. The list is admittedly skewed towards the two coasts and, to keep it from becoming “unwieldy, fixed, and dull,” neglects “rabbis who keep their heads down and continue to do their pastoral, spiritual, or organizational work year after year.”
The passion for the new and newsworthy is precisely a feature of American Jewish culture in the 21st century. It is therefore either odd or reassuring that 18 of the 50 rabbis on the list lead congregations, albeit of vastly different sorts. Pride of place goes to large and established institutions with many hundreds or thousands of members and a wide array of programs, like David Wolpe (#1)’s Sinai Temple in Westwood, Marcia Zimmerman (#34)’s Temple Israel in Minneapolis, and Arthur Schneier (#27)’s Park East Synagogue in Manhattan. Smaller congregations, such as Andy Bachman (#41)’s Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, are also highlighted. The message is that, contrary to certain expectations, predictions, and hopes, congregations (broadly defined to include traditional synagogues as well as interest- or identity-based groups) continue to be a focal point for American Jewish life.
The list’s denominational breakdown, whether by accident or design, also looks oddly like that of American Jewry: five slots are Reconstructionist, 16 are Reform, nine Conservative, eight Orthodox, seven Modern Orthodox, one Haredi, three Jewish Renewal, and one independent. What the list does not reflect are the implosions of the Reform and Conservative movements. The jarring problems of synagogue and denominational membership are only implied by frequent references to the Reform movement’s Rabbinic Vision Initiative, spearheaded by Central Synagogue’s Peter J. Rubinstein (#3).
It is therefore predictable and dismaying that over 20 of the rabbis touted as the “top” are the heads of major Jewish institutions, denominational movements, seminaries, or educational and community institutions. The top-heavy structure of American Jewish life, evident to anyone who continues to participate in (and pay for) its organized forms, is unwittingly displayed. Readers might also ask whether the upheavals that have gone on within these institutions, and which are briefly reported on in the rabbis’ biographies, are designed to protect the institutions or better serve the community.
Even more dismaying is the aspect of Jewish life that is conspicuous in its near absence. While many of the list’s rabbis are involved in adult education or outreach (including, at #33, the three broadly-smiling “stars” of the independent Mechon Hadar in Manhattan), only one day school head or secondary educator, Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan’s Ramaz School, made the list (#26).
The fall of the day school from grace (and the complete absence of camping, non-sexy but shown to be important in strengthening Jewish identity) is a harbinger of things to come. Day schools, fantastically expensive, are out; adult education, at the advanced, remedial, and outreach levels, is in. Such adult programs also only thrive on the coasts where there is money to support them and critical masses to take advantage of them (although the patient, global work of Chabad rabbis, the very definition of rabbis who keep their heads down—notwithstanding a #2 slot for movement leader Yehuda Krinsky—runs counter to the image projected by the list).  In this light, and with respect to the shockingly high cost of Jewish living, it is worth recalling that over 80 percent of American Jews live in and around only ten urban centers. Adult education and outreach are inherently praiseworthy, but there is a hint of defeatism in the failure to put today’s children front and center in the Jewish agenda.
“Outreach,” as in Kerry Olitzky (#31)’s  Jewish Outreach Institute, also merges into social action.  IKAR, the Los Angeles-based “progressive, egalitarian Jewish community” headed by Sharon Brous (#5), sponsors weekly Torah study in the morning and a “Green Action Party” in the afternoon. Social action, social justice, and social welfare are all well represented, showing that American rabbis are expected to be progressive moral exemplars as much as or more than teachers of Torah and explicitly Jewish values.
It is worthwhile to contrast the Daily Beast/Newsweek list with the “Forward 50,” which is constructed along cultural as well as religious and political lines. Only Richard Jacobs (#7), the incoming head of the Union for Reform Judaism, made the top five of the Forward list (territory he shared with left fielder Ryan Braun and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), but a scattering of other rabbis were included. The picture of American Jews and Judaism presented by the “Forward 50” is even more strongly skewed toward social justice and good works.
Does any of this paint a picture of the American Jewish community, outside the minds of the editors? Is the list a snapshot, a caricature, a wish list? At best the Daily Beast/Newsweek list is useful in spite of itself, and in spite of being embedded in a maddening kaleidoscope of the weighty and the idiotic, from comedian Stephen Colbert’s musings on youth unemployment and a list of “5 incredible ski spots” to Paul Begala’s preemptive attack on the Supreme Court for potentially striking down the Affordable Care Act.
This context matters in that the Daily Beast/Newsweek is marketing a Jewish story to non-Jews. That story is resolutely positive; the Jewish community has earnest leaders, most of whom are under 60, doing good works with their eyes set firmly on the future. The institutions they lead are dynamic and the causes they promote are wholesome. Grinding, prosaic reality is pushed to the background, along with the truly tawdry aspects of Jewish life and rabbinic leadership. There are no child molesters, tax cheats, or organ brokers, and no one demanding that Israel be dismantled. Overexposed self-promoters are at a minimum (tabloid fixture Marc Schneier clocks in at #35 for his “consistently bold work on Jewish-Muslim coexistence,” while the previously ubiquitous Shmuley Boteach drops from #11 to #30). The Jewish community does not appear to be shrinking, or aging, or torn apart by dissent over Israel, women, or gays. The Daily Beast/Newsweek list is almost enough to give one hope—which perhaps in the end is what is needed.