An Annotated Guide to America's Top Rabbis

Every year, Newsweek, for reasons not entirely clear, runs a very entertaining list of the country's 50 Most Influential Rabbis, a feature has become the NCAAs of the rabbinate. The list is meant to be picked over, so pick over it I will, especially because after an almost-literally endless book tour, I think I've met most of the rabbis in America. Now to Newsweek's list, with my comments beneath each entry in italics:

1. David Saperstein (2008 Ranking #5)  Saperstein jumps to the top spot because of his role as Washington insider and political powerbroker and Friend of Obama.  He is the Director of the Religious Action Center and the Co-Chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty.

This pick is typical of the list, which slights congregational rabbis (the ones who interact with, you know, Jews), but it makes a certain amount of sense: Saperstein has become a central player in the liberal wing of American Jewry, which is the wing on steroids.

2. Marvin Hier (2008 Ranking #1)  Hier is a major player in national and world politics and has built one of the world's leading human rights organizations, the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Not so sure about this one. The Wiesenthal Center represents yesterday's sort of American Judaism, i.e., the relentless focus on anti-Semitism and Israel. Hier wouldn't be here on the list if Abe Foxman were a rabbi, by the way.

3. Mark Charendoff (2008 Ranking #10)  Charendoff is President of the Jewish Funders Network, an international organization of family foundations, public philanthropies and individual funders.

Again, he plays a role in Jewish life that could be played by a non-rabbi. But the Jewish Funders Network decides where what remains of the money goes.

4. Yehuda Krinsky (2008 Ranking #4)  Krinsky's impact continues to grow as the global leader of the Chabad movement.

The Lubavitcher survivor. He's probably still mad at me for reporting 15 years ago in the Forward that the Lubavitcher rebbe spent his last days watching CNN. He's taken effective control of a tumultuous organization, so credit him with serious management skills.

5. David Ellenson, Ph.D. (2008 Ranking #8)  Ellenson is charged with training tomorrow's leaders as the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the nation's oldest institution of higher Jewish education.

The father of a friend of mine, so I'm biased, but he's a real mensch who has helped introduce tradition into Reform Judaism.

6. Robert Wexler, Ph.D. (2008 Ranking #3)  Wexler is the President of American Jewish University.

Don't know him. American Jewish University is a lacrosse powerhouse, I think.

7. Shmuley Boteach (2008 Ranking #9)  Boteach calls himself "America's Rabbi." He continues to promote himself and his perspective on his daily radio show, on television and in his long list of books, including the recently published "The Broken Male and How to Fix Him."

Oh, come on. If self-promotion were a Jewish virtue, the man would be the new Moses.

8. Eric Yoffie (2008 Ranking #2)  Yoffie is the leader of the Reform movement, representing 1.5 million Jews in over 900 synagogues.  He has pioneered dialogue programs with Christians and Muslims nationwide.

Yoffie should be higher on the list.  He's rescued the Reform movement from the assimilators. Also, he represents the vast silent middle of American Jewry that is sometimes uncomfortable with AIPAC but uncomfortable with its alternatives as well.

9. Uri D. Herscher, Ph.D. (2008 Ranking #6)  Herscher is the Founder and President of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Nice place, that Skirball Cultural Center.

10. Irwin Kula (2008 Ranking #7)  The Co-President of CLAL and bestselling author continues to raise his profile nationally as an innovator committed to reshaping America's spiritual landscape.

Very charismatic and thoughtful. I met him in Aspen. He's the sort of rabbi who shows up in Aspen.

11. David Wolpe (2008 Ranking #12) Wolpe is considered one of the most dynamic pulpit rabbis in America

One of my all-time favorite rabbis. Should be higher on the list. Actually has a pulpit. Also took on Roger Cohen, to his credit.

12. Peter J. Rubinstein (2008 Ranking #15)  Rubinstein is the spiritual leader of New York's Central Synagogue.

Never met him. I've heard good things, for what it's worth.

13. Yehuda Berg (2008 Ranking #11)  Berg is the world's most popular authority on the Kabbalah.

Give me a break.

14. Norman Lamm (2008 Ranking #43)  Lamm is Chancellor of Yeshiva University.

Still fighting the ultra-reactionaries on the Orthodox right, from what I hear.

15. Joseph Telushkin (2008 Ranking #21)  Telushkin is a best-selling author and speaker.

Writes very accessible books. He taught my Torah studies class once. Very amusing storyteller.

16. J. Rolando Matalon (2008 Ranking #13)  Matalon is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun.

One of the greats. Helped make B'nai Jeshurun, which was near death, into one of the most dynamic houses of worship in America. Also, world center of Jewish dating. Too much dancing in the aisles for my taste, though.

17. Menchem Genack (NEW)  Genack is the CEO of the Orthodox Union's Kosher Division.

This is a tough job these days. Don't know him.

18. Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (NEW)  Dreyfus is the new head of the CCAR.

Also don't know her.

19. Jeffrey Wohlberg (2008 Ranking #18)  Wohlberg is Rabbi at Washington, D.C.'s Adas Israel Congregation.

Huh? Wohlberg retired last year. I should know; this is my shul. He's still a major macher (president of the Rabbinical Assembly), but Gil Steinlauf is now the Adas rabbi, and the early returns are all positive.

20. Steve Gutow (NEW)  Gutow is the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Not the most relevant Jewish organization in America, IMHO.

21. Harold M. Schulweis (2008 Ranking #19)  Schulweis is considered the leading Conservative Rabbi of his generation and the Founder of Jewish World Watch.

I'm always suspicious of people "considered' to be the leading anything.

22. Haskel Lookstein (2008 Ranking #22)  Lookstein is head of New York's Ramaz School and Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

Could play a rabbi on TV he's such a rabbi.

23. Dan Ehrenkrantz (2008 Ranking #20)  Ehrenkrantz is the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

One day someone will finally explain Reconstructionist Judaism to me. One of my neighbors is a Reconstructionist rabbi, so I should probably just ask.

24. Michael Greenbaum (2008 Ranking #37)  Greenbaum is Vice Chancellor and COO of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Very good scholar of the Conservative movement.

25. Sharon Kleinbaum (2008 Ranking #17)  Kleinbaum is the Senior Rabbi of New York's synagogue for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.

I once profiled her, before she was a "senior" rabbi. An excellent pastor to people with AIDS, I remember.

26. M. Bruce Lustig (2008 Ranking #24)  Lustig is the leader of Washington Hebrew Congregation, the largest congregation in Washington, D.C.

Bruce's son and my daughter are in the same grade, same (non-Jewish) school. When my daughter portrayed Hanna Senesh in a guess-what-historical-figure-I-am project, Bruce was the only parent to guess correctly. It wouldn't have reflected well on Washington Hebrew if he hadn't.

27. Art Green (2008 Ranking #23)  Green is Dean of Hebrew College's Rabbinical School.

A little too kumbaya for me. But a lot of things are.

28. Daniel Brenner (NEW)  Brenner is the new Executive Director of Birthright Next.

Haven't met him.

29. Abraham Cooper (2008 Ranking #25)  Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Enough already with the Wiesenthal Center.

30. David Stern (2008 Ranking #26)  Stern is leader of the largest congregation in the Southwest, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas

Sounds impressive.

31. Sharon Brous (2008 Ranking #30)  Brous is the founder of IKAR, one of America's most dynamic new congregations.

Is impressive. I've seen her in action.

32. Stephen Pearce (2008 Ranking #47)  Pearce is the leader of San Francisco's largest congregation, with 2,700 families.

Wasn't this the guy in "Memento"?

33. Marc Schneier (Returning from 2007 List)  Schneier is President and Founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Probably a slot that could have been used for a pulpit rabbi. (Update: I'm told he is a pulpit rabbi as well. So welcome to Slot #33. My apologies)

34. Kerry M. Olitzky (2008 Ranking #32)  Olitzky is one of the leading rabbinical advocates for outreach to interfaith and unaffiliated families in America.

Does important work.

35. Ephraim Buchwald (2008 Ranking #44)  Buchwald is the Founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Trying to make Judaism more accessible.

36. Arthur Schneier (2008 Ranking #28)  Schneier is the spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue and Founder and President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.  He is the first rabbi to host the Pope at his synagogue.

I'm not impressed with rabbis who chase after the Pope.

37. Mark Golub (NEW)  Golub is the CEO of Shalom Television.

Seen by dozens of Jews each night.

38. Avi Weiss (2008 Ranking #36)  Weiss is the driving force behind the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Kind of crazy -- I've had several fights with him, about what I can't remember -- but does great things for people with special needs.

39. Naomi Levy (2008 Ranking #41)  Levy is a popular author and a leading woman in the Conservative movement.

I thought my wife was a leading woman in the Conservative movement.

40. Bradley Shavit Artson (2008 Ranking #31)  Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.

He has a lot of names. Actually, very, very smart. I enjoy reading him.

41. Elliot Dorff (2008 Ranking #35)  Dorff is the leader of the top lawmaking body in Conservative Judaism.

A leading spokesman for including gays and lesbians in Jewish life. (I'm for it, in case you were wondering.)

42. Bradley Hirschfield (2008 Ranking #39)  Hirschfeld is the Co-President of CLAL and an outspoken proponent of interfaith dialogue.

Also saw him Aspen. There are a surprising number of rabbis running around Aspen.

43. Hayim Herring (2008 Ranking #40)  Herring is Executive Director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal).

The greatest name in the American rabbinate. Married to Shulamit Sturgeon. My wife met him, and said he's very smart on the subject of revitalizing synagogues.

44. Ed Feinstein (NEW) Feinstein has taken Valley Beth Shalom to a whole new level.

I don't know what this means. But his synagogue is in Encino, so how high can it go?

45. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (2008 Ranking #27)  Schacter-Shalomi is Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement in America.

Very interesting thinker.

46. Elie Kaunfer (NEW) Kaunfer is the Founder of Mechon Hadar and Kehilat Hadar.

Mechon Hadar is a great organization.

47. Harold Loss (2008 Ranking #42)  Loss has more than 12,000 members in his congregation at Temple Israel in Detroit, MI.

The king of Megagogues.

48. Jill Jacobs (NEW)  Jacobs runs the Jewish Funds for Justice.

Doing important work.

49. Joy Levitt (NEW)  Levitt is the Executive Director of the JCC of Manhattan.

I gave a talk there once. A very exciting place. Excellent speakers.

50. Michael Paley (2008 Ranking #48)  Paley is the scholar-in-residence and director of the Jewish Resource Center of the UJA-Federation of New York.

One of the smartest Jews I've met. I'll post my list of dumbest Jews I've met another time.