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Reform’s Saperstein tops Newsweek’s rabbis list

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Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, was picked by Newsweek as one of the most influential rabbis in the United States. (RAC)

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, was picked by Newsweek as one of the most influential rabbis in the United States. (RAC)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Hold the presses and indignant blogs. There’s a new Number One rabbi on Newsweek’s list of the 50 most influential American rabbis, dethroning the previous champion.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism In Washington, D.C., took over the top spot from Rabbi Marvin Hier.

Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, has led the field since the list first appeared two years ago, but was relegated to runner-up in the 2009 list.

What mainly propelled Saperstein into the lead is his role as Washington insider, political powerbroker and friend of President Obama, said Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions and one of the three men who determine the rankings.

The other two voting members are media executives Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Gary Ginsberg, executive vice president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Following Saperstein and Hier in the top 10 are Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network; Yehuda Krinsky, global leader of the Chabad movement; David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College; Robert Wexler, president, American Jewish University; Shmuley Boteach, author, radio and TV host; Eric Yoffie, head of Reform movement; Uri Herscher, founder of Skirball Cultural Center; and Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL.

For the first time, Lynton, Ginsberg and Sanderson have added the category of America’s Most Vibrant Congregations, listing their choices by regional groupings rather than numerical rankings.

The list got its start when the three old friends were sitting around a table three years ago, but instead of discussing baseball or politics, they talked about the erosion of synagogue affiliation and participation, and what kind of rabbis it would take to turn the trend around.

After the three men completed the list, they figured they might share it with it with a few friends. “But I never thought it would go anywhere,” Sanderson said.

Shortly before Passover 2007, the New York-based Ginsberg phoned Lisa Miller, Newsweek’s religion editor, who liked the concept and gave the first list of 50 influential rabbis considerable play. She repeated in 2008, urging the three originators to add a separate list of 25 outstanding pulpit rabbis.

“This year, with cutbacks and fewer pages, I thought that Newsweek might drop the whole thing, but a few weeks ago Lisa called and asked, ‘Where’s the list of hot rabbis?’” Sanderson said.

Although the three men invest considerable time in the project, phoning and vetting candidates, with Sanderson doing most of the research, they make it clear that the selection process is hardly scientific.

“We started with the basic assumption that most Jews want to be connected but that few of our institutions are responsive to their needs,” Sanderson said.

“Our main goal in compiling the lists was, and is, to start a critical conversation in the community about the future and direction of Judaism,” he added. “Our hope is that when family members sit around the Seder table, they will talk about today’s state of Judaism and what needs changing.”

As with any list of 10, 50 or 100 best movies or books, there is, in the best Jewish tradition, vocal criticism of the choices.

East Coasters have complained that the list is weighted in favor of Californians, fervently Orthodox rabbis argue that they have been overlooked in favor of modern Orthodox rabbis, and others wonder where the three media guys got the chutzpah to judge the effectiveness of rabbis nationwide.

After last year’s list came out, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz ran a condescending commentary, making light of the clout of American rabbis as compared to the political influence of Israel’s fervently Orthodox rabbinate.

“In the U.S., an influential rabbi can get on ‘Oprah,’” Ha’aretz wrote. “In Israel, he can start World War III.”

American writer and feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin harshly criticized the list because it singled out 45 men, but only five women rabbis. She put out her own revised list, with the names of 45 women rabbis and only five men.

Sanderson denies any bias based on geographical distribution. “Ginsberg lives in New York, Lynton in Los Angeles, and I shuttle between the two cities,” he said.

He pointed out that he and his two colleagues rely heavily on focus groups in various cities for feedback, make innumerable phone calls, and do not favor the synagogues they themselves attend.

For instance, he said, “neither Gary’s, Michael’s nor my shul made the list of most vibrant congregations,” Sanderson said.

He described the 2009 list as “weightier” than the two preceding ones, refining the eight criteria used in the selection process, and taking into account the economic pressures on Jewish institutions.

It’s a sign of the growing impact of the Newsweek lists that congregations, like movie studios, have taken to publicly lauding their “Oscar” winners and lobbying for their rabbis to be on next year’s list.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from about 25 congregation presidents touting the great contributions of their rabbis,” Sanderson said. “Three rabbis have sent e-mails, citing their overlooked accomplishments and suggesting that they should be ranked higher on next year’s list.”

For the entire lists of selected rabbis and congregations, visit http://www.newsweek.com/id/192476 and click on Belief Watch.

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