Lead Players on a Global Stage
November 12, 2004
The past year has been a time of passionate, wrenching divisions within America and across the globe. The world has been unsettled in a way not seen since the 1930s, though comparisons are, as Philip Roth reminds us with his new masterpiece, always imperfect and often misleading.
And not since the 1930s have the affairs and passions of the Jews loomed so large in the world's troubled imaginings. The future of the Middle East, Jihad and Muslim rage, images of Jewish cabals in Washington, debates over immigration, tolerance of religious minorities and even the old question of who killed Jesus. It has started to seem, at times, as though every bugbear that might frighten us has been thrown onto the table at once.
There is at least one essential difference between now and the 1930s. In the Nazi era, Jews were helpless pawns, unable to do anything but watch as forces of history gathered against them. Today Jews are not just plot devices but central players in nearly every act of the drama, on all sides.
Not surprisingly, when we compiled this year's annual Forward 50 list of the most influential members of the American Jewish community, we found it dominated by individuals who are playing lead roles in the great struggles of the day, as policy-makers, theoreticians, activists and gadflies. Through much of this year, their doings seemed almost to crowd out the more traditional concerns of the community, from education to charity. But one look past the surface shows that the streets of Jewish America are bubbling with new energy and spirit.
Reflecting the outsize role of Jewish concerns on the world agenda, we've added a new category we call Public Square, featuring public officials whose roles — running a Holocaust museum, dividing Holocaust-era assets — are at once governmental and explicitly Jewish.
This year's Forward 50 actually contains 51 entries, to make room for someone who is not Jewish but might well be the world's most famous practitioner of Judaism — the pop singer Madonna. To include her on a list of prominent Jews would have been false, but to leave her off would have been no less misleading.
The Forward 50 is not based on a scientific survey or on a democratic election. Names have been suggested by readers and by our own staff. Each year's compilation is a journalistic effort to record some of the trends and events in American Jewish life in the year just ended and to illuminate some of the individuals likely to be in the news in the year ahead.
Membership in the 50 doesn't mean the Forward endorses what these individuals do or say. We've chosen them because they are doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves. Not all of them have put their energies into the traditional framework of Jewish community life, but all of them have consciously pursued Jewish activism as they understood it, and all of them have left a mark.
The Top Five
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared in October before the United Jewish Communities's annual Lion of Judah conference and talked about the Jewish roots of her legal philosophy, she wasn't breaking new ground. Ginsburg, 71, has spoken out regularly on her views of the Jewish legal tradition since she was named to the Supreme Court by former President Bill Clinton in 1993, becoming the second woman and the sixth Jew to serve on the high court. Carrying on a tradition established by Justices Louis Brandeis and Arthur Goldberg before her, she has been unabashed in acknowledging her debt to Jewish values, in the process becoming one of the nation's most visible symbols of Jewish pride. Among the court's most liberal members, she has been a firm defender of civil liberties during the Bush years. Perhaps with an eye to posterity, she's stepped up her Jewish activism in the past year, particularly in print, with an essay in the Forward (her second) and in "I Am a Jew," the memorial volume published in memory of slain journalist Daniel Pearl. Before joining the high court, Brooklyn-born Ginsburg was a law professor at Columbia University and a leader in the women's rights divisions of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress. For all that, her most important legacy probably lies ahead of her; all her powers of reason and persuasion will be put to the test in the next four years as she prepares to defend the court's embattled liberal wing during President Bush's second term.
Howard Kohr and
This year has truly been the best and the worst of times for Bernice Manocherian, 62, and Howard Kohr, 48, respectively president and executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In May the duo shared the dais at their annual policy conference with President Bush, only the second president to appear before the powerful pro-Israel lobby. As 5,000 delegates cheered, Bush praised Aipac for "serving the cause of America," said its work is "more vital than ever" and thanked it for electing, in Manocherian, "a president I can kiss." But in late August, startling reports were leaked to the media that the FBI was investigating two Aipac officials on suspicion of illegally transferring documents from a Pentagon analyst to Israeli diplomats. The allegations, which in some versions included espionage, raised old images of American Jewish dual loyalty, and the media had a field day. By November, however, the story had largely faded from view, with no sign from the Justice Department that any indictments were in the works. Aipac was as active as ever on the congressional lobbying front, and following a September letter to members from Kohr and Manocherian asking for a "special, additional contribution" to get through the crisis, the organization appeared likely to finish the year financially stronger than ever. According to colleagues, Kohr summed up the experience with the observation that "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
After six years as president of the perennially struggling American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, 58, born in a postwar displaced persons camp, stepped aside this year to become chairman of the board — and saw his influence and visibility soar. His hard-line stance on French antisemitism and his alliance with a grass-roots French Jewish activist group, which irritated mainstream Jewish leaders in Paris and ruffled more than a few diplomatic feathers, were beginning to pay off in changed policies, and they marked deference from the Quai D'Orsay. His friendship with President Bush and easy access to the White House were becoming hard to ignore, even among critics of his pragmatic, anti-ideological style. He had a misstep this summer with the naming of an Israeli diplomat as CEO of the American Jewish Congress, which turned out to violate Israeli law. Still, his influence is certain to grow, whether or not he is chosen next spring to chair the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as insiders suggest.
There is an argument to be made that novelist Philip Roth should have been on this list every year since 1959, when he burst onto the literary scene with "Goodbye, Columbus." Sadly, we have been publishing the Forward 50 for barely a decade, while Roth has been the unofficial spokesman for the American Jewish mind for close to a half-century. But even for the prodigiously talented and much-praised Roth, his latest offering, "The Plot Against America," seems a milestone. Venturing into the new territory of "what if" counter-history, Roth imagines an America in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president in 1940, keeps America out of World War II and begins singling out the Jews as a national threat. Despite Roth's public demurrals that "The Plot" shouldn't be read as an allegory for today's political climate, it's hard not to draw parallels, beginning with the accusations of Jewish power and war-mongering that have spread around the globe since the buildup to war in Iraq. Most striking is the book's ultimate warning: that fascism can spread quickly and widely and that what is most American about America is its resistance to it. Roth's choice of Jews as the vehicle for this lesson might seem obvious — who else would Roth write about? — but for many it's a powerful testament to our place in this country. "Can the Great American Novel be about Jews?" our reviewer asked. "Why not? The Great Irish Novel was."
He sits atop The New York Times's best-seller list with "America (The Book)." His Emmy Award-winning satirical news program, "The Daily Show" on cable's Comedy Central, has become the top-rated cable show among 18-to-34-year-olds, topping 2.4 million viewers after the presidential debates. But the raw numbers don't show the full influence of this Walter Cronkite of fake news, born 41 years ago as Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz. Polls show that his program has become one of the main sources of political information for the young. During the primary campaigns, every Democratic presidential contender took a turn on his interview couch, fielding his serious questions and sarcastic jabs while jockeying for the youth vote. Republicans endure his barbs, as well. When he asked neoconservative Bill Kristol, right after the election, if the Christian right's claims to heaven weren't "elitist," Kristol told him to "ask one of your Christian guests. We Jews have our own elitism — we believe we're the chosen people." Stewart's reply: "I'm a Jew who believes in a good bagel buffet." His comment on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a mock apology: "Sorry — we didn't know he was the Christ." But there is seriousness on the set: His staff took an evening last spring to hold a fund raiser for Israeli terrorism victims. Stewart himself announced on election night that he would spend Bush's second term "huddled" in the blue states, "frankly weeping." But then he assured viewers that the administration will provide him with plenty of material to make them laugh.
This was supposed to be Edgar Bronfman's last year as president of the World Jewish Congress. At age 75, after a quarter-century at the helm, the billionaire beverage baron was ready to retire. He changed his mind in September and decided to run for a sixth term when his rivals seemed too happy to see him go. Conservatives within the organization, led by the Jerusalem-based senior vice-president Isi Leibler, began calling for Bronfman's head a year ago after he publicly attacked Israel's security fence in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell. A protracted feud developed, laced with allegations of financial impropriety; it ended this fall when the organization's board stripped Leibler of most of his authority. Even in victory, though, Bronfman continues to throw verbal bombs, most recently in an October interview in which he called Jewish opposition to intermarriage "racist." But with his boundless energy and generosity — in addition to WJC, he is a top donor to Hillel, Aipac and other causes — he will cast a large shadow for a long time to come.
It surely says something about the standing of Jews in the mind of the West when America's best-known battler against antisemitism speaks out on a movie with suspected anti-Jewish overtones and ends up himself being accused of waging a smear campaign to fatten his own agency's coffers. That's pretty much what happened last year to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, when he tried — first in a private letter, then in public interviews — to engage Mel Gibson on his upcoming "The Passion of the Christ." Though fears of a post-"Passion" wave of antisemitism proved unfounded, Foxman's critiques were generally measured and on target; his missteps were tactical, letting himself be outmaneuvered as Gibson cannily played the martyred artist fighting for free expression. Still, a year later the "Passion" furor is long past and Foxman, 64, is more indispensable than ever. This summer he deftly mobilized American Jewish support for Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan, speaking out early and forcefully against a rising tide of anti-Sharon incitement. When the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations appeared unwilling to take sides on Sharon's plan, Foxman flexed some muscle and forced a vote that put the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups on record in favor. Love him or hate him, Foxman remains a rarity in the Jewish organizational world, a genuine leader who's ready to stand up and suffer the arrows of a public fight, mostly for the better.
Some of Old Europe's top leaders turned out in Brussels in February for the launch of the Transatlantic Institute, a combination think tank and lobby opened by the American Jewish Committee in the capital city of the European Union. It's part of the continuing strategy of David Harris, executive director of AJCommittee since 1990, for making his agency an essential voice of reason in the middle of the storm. Some observers warned that the new institute could be taken as another example of American bullying, but smart insiders said the response would be just the opposite: Given the shouting that typically passes for transatlantic relations these days, Harris's trademark understatement sets him apart and makes him and his organization a favorite address for Europeans trying to figure what's gone wrong and how to fix it. Harris doesn't pull punches; he's been known as a hawk on antisemitism since his days as a Soviet Jewry activist in the 1970s and 1980s. He has made his organization one of the key Jewish resources for no-nonsense terrorism research. But with his command of languages and his diplomatic style, he's able to convey American Jewish concerns abroad without stirring resentment.
Rabbi Marvin Hier
As an Orthodox rabbi with a few Oscars to his credit, Hier was uniquely qualified to weigh in when "The Passion of the Christ" was released in February — and he did, emerging as one of the film's most-quoted Jewish critics. Since setting up shop in Los Angeles three decades ago, Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has consistently been one of organized Judaism's most important Hollywood ambassadors, a distinction that helped turn him into Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite rabbi. The Governator was by Hier's side this spring when the rabbi broke ground on the Wiesenthal Center's new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. The $200 million, Frank Gehry-designed project is slated for completion in 2007. If Schwarzenegger's allies ever succeed in amending the Constitution so that the foreign-born movie star can run for president, Hier may have more access to the White House than any Jewish communal leader in American history.
Malcolm Hoenlein and James Tisch
This duo wields influence in Washington, Jerusalem and foreign capitals across the world as they lead the community's main pro-Israel umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, 60, the organization's staff director since 1986, is the man behind the curtain, a master at leveraging the appearance of power and influence. Tisch, 51, the organization's lay chairman, is a highly influential philanthropist and scion of one of the nation's wealthiest families. Both men drew heat this year for failing to secure a clear, timely statement of support from the 52-member conference for the disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon before it was approved by the Knesset. In the end, though, few private citizens are more influential on American policy in the Middle East.
For more than a decade, since the start of the Oslo peace process, Morton Klein, 57, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, has been the most vocal and effective critic of Israeli and American efforts to broker a two-state solution. Under his leadership, the ZOA has become a player on Capitol Hill, with a dependable stable of lawmakers willing to take Klein's calls and to sign on to his legislative initiatives. His message is clear and consistent: Any territorial concession to the Palestinians represents a victory for terrorism and will only spark more attacks on Israeli civilians and Western targets. The ZOA recently issued a statement accusing the Knesset of "appeasement" after the Israeli parliament endorsed Sharon's Gaza pullout plan. But the real question is whether Klein and his minions will be content to fire off zesty press releases, or take the fight to Congress in the hopes of preventing the use of American aid to help implement the Israeli pullout from Gaza and resettle Jewish residents of the territories.
Steve Rabinowitz and Matt Dorf
In an era dominated by image makers and message crafters, Rabinowitz, 47, and Dorf, 34, are the dominant public-relations force in the Jewish community. Their client list includes the congregational arms of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements; the United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of the local Jewish charitable federations in North America, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative advocacy body that brings together 123 local Jewish communities and 13 national organizations. Both men swing left politically: Rabinowitz served in the Clinton White House and remains a Democratic strategist; Dorf pushed a slew of liberal causes in his stint as the Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress and was tapped by Howard Dean to help the presidential candidate shore up his standing with Jewish voters. It should come as no surprise that one client, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, took the lead in calling on Conservative rabbis to reconsider the movement's ban on ordaining gays and lesbians, and another, the JCPA, was out front in launching a spirited attack on President Bush's tax-cutting policies.
This has not been a good year for Jewish liberals, with wars in Israel and Iraq driving the public discourse of the Jewish community ever further to the right. But Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has not given up the fight to keep an expansive Jewish social agenda front and center. In February she won approval from her council, which unites a dozen major national Jewish agencies and 123 local community councils, for a resolution criticizing the Bush administration's tax cuts. In June she criticized the Supreme Court for validating parochial-school vouchers. Her organization's "Confronting Poverty Initiative" provides local communities with weekly updates about threats to the poorest Americans. Rosenthal and her organization have faced serious flack from other Jewish groups — including some of her own member-agencies — for taking on issues with no obvious Jewish communal stake. Partly in response, Rosenthal has adapted her organization to focus more on local communities, helping them to coordinate their Israel advocacy and other programs. But she hasn't backed away from national policy issues. As the representative of 123 local Jewish community councils and a dozen of the largest national groups, she leads what is perhaps the most broadly democratic Jewish organization, and she seems to take it as a mandate to speak for what many see as a silent Jewish majority.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Standing astride the world's largest synagogue movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, 57, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, continues to cast a giant shadow over the religious, cultural and political life of American Jewry.
On a slew of domestic and foreign policy fronts, he remains a staunch and vocal liberal. Increasingly, however, he's leading his movement on a centrist course, in line with his vision of Reform as the center of the community rather than its left wing. He led the Jewish coalition that confronted the Presbyterian Church (USA) on its plans to divest from Israel. He's planted himself pragmatically behind Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and his disengagement plan, calling himself a "dove for Sharon." He's cautiously followed the same tack at home, looking for opportunities to praise the Bush administration — for speaking out on Darfur, cooperating with Europe or enhancing the rights of capital defendants — rather than lead his flock into the wilderness.
His unique position as the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives and a senior member of the House leadership has turned the 41-year-old Virginia congressman into an important "go-to" person for Washington Jewish activists. As the fourth in command in the House majority leadership and as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Cantor has immense influence over the chamber's legislative agenda. As the House veers further to the right in the coming years, the third-term congressman will become even more instrumental as an address for the Jewish community's liberal-leaning lobbyists. An active Conservative Jew, Cantor is also a staunch political conservative: Last year he scored five out of 100 on the report card of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and 88 on the American Conservative Union's scale. Within the GOP he's viewed as a rising star. When he was appointed chief deputy majority whip of the House two years ago, a position that was several sizes larger than his seniority, Washington insiders said it was a part of the Republicans' aggressive drive to attract young Jews. But Cantor, who formerly spent nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates, "has risen to the occasion," according to an official with a major Jewish organization in Washington, "and has proven that he is indeed a professional politician."
There's probably no one in the Bush administration to whom victory this month smelled sweeter than Douglas Feith, 51, undersecretary of defense for policy. A charter member of the neoconservative circle that helped shape Iraq policy in the Bush Pentagon, Feith has been, with Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, the object of worldwide vilification, accused of leading a Jewish clique that dragged America into war for Israel's benefit. Feith has arguably had the worst of it; his Office of Special Plans took heat for faulty intelligence, and one of his aides was fingered this summer for passing documents to Israel. And, unlike Wolfowitz and Perle, Feith actually does have a deep, life-long involvement with Zionist causes. His father, Dalck Feith, was a member of Menachem Begin's militant Betar youth movement in pre-World War II Poland and fought with the Irgun in British-run Palestine before settling in Philadelphia, where he's a prominent businessman and philanthropist. Douglas Feith, a Harvard graduate, joined Ronald Reagan's National Security Council in 1981 and shuttled between the NSC and the Pentagon until 1993, when the Clinton election returned him to private life. A father of four, he's an active synagogue-goer and an officer of the Charles E. Smith Community Day School. On Israel affairs, Feith never has wandered far from the not-one-inch Zionism of his youth. He's been honored by such hard-line groups as the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel. His scrappy posture on the global stage has earned a brace of enemies for him and the administration he serves, but he appears ready to keep fighting.
The 67-year-old New York Democrat could emerge in the coming years as a moral compass for her injured party, which is seeking to redefine itself on "values" following this month's failed attempt to recapture the White House and both houses of Congress. An eight-term House veteran, she's been one of the main engines of pro-Israel activity on Capitol Hill, taking the lead in foreign aid and initiating pro-Israel and pro-peace resolutions and initiatives. A veteran defender of abortion rights, women's rights and minority rights, she's also become deeply involved in environmental issues and in homeland security, along with health care, medical research, education and gun control. Entering her ninth term, she will take on new importance as the dean of what is now a seven-member delegation of Jewish women, with the addition of newly elected Representatives Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. During her last campaign, Lowey was castigated by her opponent for "liberal orthodoxy," but it didn't bother her. From her longtime perch as the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, she'll be a key voice in the next two years on policies — international family planning, fighting AIDS and hunger in Africa — that could make or break America's image abroad.
At the start of the year, this crusty 74-year-old liberal Republican senator was starting to look like an endangered species. But the cagey Pennsylvanian survived spirited challenges in the primary and general elections to secure a fifth term. Now he's taking center stage in the fight over the federal judiciary and abortion rights, after triggering a firestorm last week by noting that Senate Democrats would likely filibuster any Supreme Court nominee bent on overturning Roe v. Wade. Christian conservative activists are scrambling to block Specter, who is pro-choice and supports embryonic stem cell research, from becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the body that approves judges before they go to the Senate floor for confirmation. The White House says it takes Specter at his word when he promises to give all nominees a prompt hearing and quick vote, but conservative activists still remember his role in sinking the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork 17 years ago. They also remember his quixotic presidential bid in 1996, which focused on protecting abortion rights and strict Church-State separation and looked to some observers like a thinly veiled GOP version of Jewish liberalism. Specter's maverick streak extends to Middle East issues — while supportive of Israel, he's been a frequent visitor to Syria and is trying to improve Iranian-American relations. Both at home and abroad, Specter's voice and his vote could play a key role on several policy fronts. Not bad for a nearly extinct political dinosaur.
Having handily won reelection this month to a fifth term as a Democratic congressman from Boca Raton, Fla., Robert Wexler, 43, appears likely to become one of his party's top strategists in mapping recovery from its 2004 debacle. A tradition-minded Jew from one of the nation's most heavily Jewish districts, he took the lead in Democratic efforts this year to fight questionable voter registration practices, showing the legal skills that made him one of former President Clinton's chief advocates during the House impeachment debate. In the past term he formally entered the House leadership, becoming assistant minority whip and ranking Democrat on the European affairs subcommittee. He has made foreign affairs his top passion; his House Web site lists "Israel" and "Anti-Semitism" among his top 12 specialty issues, along with Medicare and the environment. He was one of two House members to participate in a rally in the Hague this year to protest the world court hearings on Israel's West Bank security fence. Passionate about Israel but liberal on domestic affairs, he scored 95 out of 100 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, and Jewish lobbyists in Washington expect him to become a "key leader" in congressional pro-Israel action for years to come.
Rumors are rampant that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, 61, is set for a promotion, following President Bush's victory earlier this month. Whether Wolfowitz replaces Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief or moves to the White House to become national security adviser, any vertical move will be widely interpreted as a vote of confidence for the ideological architect of the Iraq war and in his vision of a democratic Middle East. Often miscast in the media as a Likud-style Middle East hawk, Wolfowitz is the product of a liberal upbringing, and his world view seems to borrow more from Woodrow Wilson than from Ariel Sharon. He has voiced greater concern for Palestinian rights than for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The next few years will go a long way toward proving whether his policies were the catalyst for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and democracy in the Middle East or left America bogged down in a bloody quagmire and plunged the region into an era of unending chaos.
As the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sara Bloomfield has been responsible for guiding one of the most important institutions conveying Jewish history and values to the rest of the world. The work took on particular political importance this year as the museum, a federally funded institution, led the American government in responding to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Bloomfield, 54, had pushed the museum's Committee on Conscience to become more involved in contemporary crimes against humanity, and in April, the committee raised a genocide alert about Darfur before other Jewish groups had even noticed the problem. Just last month, Bloomfield met with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan about the crisis in Darfur. Bloomfield was also instrumental in the opening of the museum's National Institute for Holocaust Education, which provides programs about the history of the Jews for teacher, soldiers, judges and police officers. To reach a platform from which she is speaking to so many, Bloomfield has paid her dues. She began at the lower administrative levels of the museum in 1986 and has since provided a rare model of woman rising to the highest ranks in the Jewish world.
Judah Gribetz was forced into a Solomonic role, though the ancient king might have had a slightly easier job. Since being appointed by a federal judge in 1999 to be the special master overseeing distribution of the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement, the 75-year-old attorney has had to adjudicate between the competing needs of different groups of aging Holocaust survivors, from Florida to Ukraine. Last winter he sifted through applications from nearly 100 groups around the world to determine how any unclaimed Swiss funds would be spent. In the end, he stuck by his earlier recommendation that most unclaimed funds go to destitute survivors in the former Soviet Union. This was not received kindly by many American and Israeli survivor groups, and at a hearing in April, Gribetz heard from a line of survivors who felt shortchanged by his decision. Even the Israeli government submitted a report denouncing the "Gribetz recommendations." But Gribetz looked beyond the most vocal constituencies and gave voice to a Jewish population — those who stayed behind in Ukraine and Belarus — that had been overlooked for years by world Jewish councils. Dealing with a fractious community is nothing new for Gribetz, a onetime president of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and former deputy mayor of the Big Apple. A master of the poker face, Gribetz has never publicly discussed the strain of his work, providing a model of what it means to stand by your principles despite the slings and arrows.
Rabbi Sharon Brous
If Conservative Judaism ever reclaims its status as the country's largest Jewish denomination, it will be in large part thanks to the work of rabbis like Sharon Brous. A native of New Jersey transplanted to Southern California, Brous, 30, is one of the most dynamic religious leaders to be ordained in recent years by the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently at work building Ikar, a new, vibrant Los Angeles congregation that seeks to serve as a meeting place for religiously observant non-Orthodox Jews and Jews who have long been alienated from synagogue life. In part, the new community can be seen as an extension of her two years working at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue known as B.J. and that boasts an innovative mix of music and social action. Brous's congregation, however, offers a more traditional style of worship (no electric instruments, for example) and greater emphasis on text study. While she is a loyal heir to the Conservative movement's commitment to an evolving canon of rabbinic law, she combines this traditionalism with a truly progressive sense that Judaism's purpose is to inspire its followers to create a better world for all humanity. The word Conservative does not appear on the Ikar Web site, but the congregation represents a compelling model for helping to reinvigorate a proud, but sluggish and shrinking, synagogue movement.
Rabbi David Ellenson
Three years after he reluctantly gave up the quiet life of an academic to accept the presidency of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi David Ellenson has emerged as a strong leader, a tireless fund raiser and a powerful voice within Reform Judaism for the issues he has long championed, including traditionalism and interdenominational dialogue. Ellenson, 57, the eighth president in the college's 125-year history, has made priorities of strengthening the institution's ties to Israel and building the endowment. Raised in an Orthodox home in Virginia, ordained at HUC's New York school in 1977, Ellenson was known chiefly as a scholar of modern Jewish intellectual history, specializing in the development of religious denominationalism over the last two centuries. His expertise serves him well in his new job; he's on good terms with leaders of other movements, and he was the only non-Orthodox rabbi invited to address a recent conference of rabbis and Catholic cardinals. And research has not stopped. His latest book, "After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity," published by HUC, came out only a month ago.
Since her appearance in 1973 as keynote speaker at what was known as the First National Jewish Women's Conference, Blu Greenberg has become the towering figure in the tidal wave that is Jewish religious feminism. She's published a half-dozen books of prose and poetry, lectures tirelessly, and serves on countless boards from the Covenant Foundation and the Dialogue Project to the Jewish Book Council. The organization she founded around her kitchen table in 1997, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, now draws thousands to its biennial conference, leading some observers to describe it as the biggest and most important gathering in the embattled world of Modern Orthodoxy. This year she stirred yet another uproar when she announced at the JOFA conference that the ordination of women Orthodox rabbis is "just around the corner" and that they will be accepted in the Modern Orthodox community within 15 or 20 years. Her organization hasn't endorsed her position, but she's told the Forward that by "making it an open conversation in the Orthodox community, it is giving it a measure of support."
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
Talmudist, lecturer, columnist and matchmaker, Rebbetzin Jungreis added a new listing to her re´sume´this year: political activist. While on tour, pushing a Hungarian translation of her latest book, "A Committed Marriage," she got a call from the Republican National Committee asking if she would offer the closing benediction at their convention. She did, and spent the next two months stumping for the president's re-election. Jungreis, 68, a native of Hungary and a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, is the founder of Hineni, an education and outreach program designed to bring together young single Jews. And bring them together she has: Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion have been known to draw as many as 2,000 spiritually hungry souls. It should come as little surprise that Jungreis, whose speaking style owes as much to Billy Graham as it does to the Talmud, would be appealing to the GOP. And the feelings seem to be mutual. At the convention, Jungreis invoked the Holocaust, as she often does, and suggested that the disaster might have been averted "if a man like President George W. Bush had been at the helm."
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky
Ten years after the death of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, folks have stopped asking whether his Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement will survive or hold together — or, for that matter, who will lead it. Lubavitch is stronger than ever, despite the absence of a holy man at the helm, thanks in no small part to the steady hand of the man who quietly took over the reins of the movement's central coordinating institutions — Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky. Known for years as the unassuming secretary at Schneerson's elbow, Krinsky has run the movement as a corporation since the rebbe's death. He's avoided confrontation with the so-called messianists who claimed Schneerson was about to be resurrected, preferring to let events take their course. He's let the movement's far-flung outreach workers operate all but independently, while the headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., serves as a resource and head franchising office. The formula seems to work; Lubavitch has spread to every corner of the world, frequently as the only Jewish show in town. The movement suffered an embarrassment this year when its representative in Vilnius, Krinsky's nephew Sholom Ber, came to blows with rival community leaders. But it hasn't slowed the march of the men in black.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 80, is the founder, spiritual mentor and de facto chief rabbi of what might be the fastest growing wing of American Judaism: the New Age-tinged, socially liberal trend known as Jewish Renewal. From his home in Boulder, Colo., he teaches, writes and dialogues with the likes of the Dalai Lama and ordains generations of new rabbis, including Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine and Arthur Waskow of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center. Born in Poland in 1924, Schachter (he added the name Shalomi in the 1970s) fled with his family in 1941 to New York, where he enrolled in the central Lubavitch yeshiva. Ordained in 1947, he became one of the first Lubavitch outreach workers, taking up posts in New England and Manitoba. It was in Winnipeg in the mid-1950s that he began exploring Eastern religions and openly questioning traditional Jewish notions of exclusive truth. In 1962, now in Philadelphia, he founded the B'nai Or (Children of Light) Fellowship, forerunner of today's Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a support center and network of congregations sharing the syncretic, mystically oriented path of the man disciples call "Reb Zalman." In recent years he's expanded into "spiritual eldering," helping seniors come to terms with aging and training them to be spiritual mentors to the young.
Ballabon, 41, a native New Yorker, basically created a new demographic this election cycle: With a groundbreaking outreach event during the Republican National Convention, he helped put his fellow Orthodox Jews on the map as a separate Republican Party constituency. He — or rather, President Bush — was rewarded royally when as many as 80% of Orthodox Jews nationally gave their vote to the GOP ticket. A Yale-trained lawyer and a graduate of Baltimore's Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Ballabon worked as a GOP Senate aide and later directed public affairs and government relations for Court TV and Primedia. He recently started his own public affairs strategy firm. A charismatic advocate of politics as an outgrowth of Torah, Ballabon is the founder and president of the nonpartisan Center for Jewish Values, chairman of the board of Jewish College Republicans and was one of the founders of Young Jewish Leadership PAC, the first Republican-Jewish political action committee in the country.
With her decades of activism on behalf of causes ranging from nuclear disarmament and building solidarity with Castro's Cuba to gay and women's rights, Leslie Cagan has long been a well-known figure in radical circles. During the past year, however, the veteran left-wing organizer found herself squarely in the mainstream media spotlight. As the head of United for Peace and Justice, the nation's leading grass-roots anti-war coalition, Cagan, 57, organized a massive anti-Bush demonstration on the eve of the Republican National Convention. After months of very public bickering with New York City Mayor R. Michael Bloomberg over logistics, Cagan managed to draw hundreds of thousands to the march, making it by far the week's largest demonstration. Unlike many radical activists, Cagan doesn't shy away from loudly announcing her Jewishness. But while exit polls suggest that most American Jews share at least part of Cagan's unhappiness with Bush's policies, many are alarmed by the platform her group has given to critics of Israel. Cagan and her coalition explicitly equate the American occupation of Iraq and Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza — and they demand that both end immediately.
When Rachel Fish learned that Jewish students were complaining about anti-Israel intimidation at the hands of some Columbia University professors, she moved to put the allegations on the record. The result was a 25-minute documentary film, featuring Columbia students and graduates detailing their claims, that shook the Columbia administration. Hours after an October 27 press screening of "Columbia Unbecoming," university president Lee Bollinger announced an investigation. It marked another successful endeavor by Fish, 25, who heads the New York office of the David Project, a new Boston-based pro-Israel activist group. Fish first surfaced last year as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School when she led a successful campaign to persuade Harvard to return a $2.5 million gift from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates. The donation was to have funded a chair in Islamic Studies, but Fish discovered that an Arab League think tank bearing Sheikh Zayed's name provided a platform for Holocaust deniers and purveyors of anti-American and antisemitic conspiracy theories. Her persistence against one of America's most prestigious institutions led to accusations of witch-hunting by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. But within weeks, the sheik had shut down the controversial center, explaining in a statement that it "had engaged in a discourse that starkly contradicted the principles of interfaith tolerance."
While much of the community has been looking ever more insistently inward, Ruth Messinger has risen steadily in the public eye as the voice of outward-directed activism, facing the world with Jewish liberal values intact. Her American Jewish World Service, a social-service agency that places volunteers in developing countries, focused on three big issues this year: the global spread of AIDS, international debt and the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Messinger's group was out front on Darfur from the beginning, opening up a bank account to provide aid for stranded Sudanese refugees. In August, she traveled to the border region between Chad and Sudan and came back to share the horror stories. Recognizing that more than money was needed to heal such situations, Messinger got her agency involved this year in advocacy for the first time with the hiring of a Washington representative. When Messinger arrived at the American Jewish World Service after a landslide defeat in the 1997 New York mayoral contest, she joined a small charity, handing out money for international projects and facilitating small groups of young Jews doing good deeds abroad. The charity still does that, but Messinger has multiplied the American Jewish World Service's mandate alongside its revenue. With Messinger on the phone, fund raising has risen every year, even during the lean years of the recession. The vision of tikkun olam that Messinger has fostered is striking a chord with an ever-growing number of adherents.
A close, old friend of President Bush, Houston venture capitalist Fred Zeidman worked his heart out to re-elect his fellow Texan. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign, Zeidman, 57, virtually took up residence in Florida at the end in an effort to help turn out the Jewish vote. Zeidman, who recently started a new gig at Greenberg Traurig, Washington's foremost lobbying shop, serves as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Under his leadership, the institution became the first arm of the American government to declare a genocide in Sudan and has avoided time-consuming Jewish communal squabbles that have plagued it in the past. A raconteur with a soft Lone Star twang, shock of salt-and-pepper hair and sometimes salty tongue, Zeidman will continue in his role as presidential confidante and adviser on matters Jewish as Bush begins what looks to be a history-making second term.
When everyone started noticing the glass ceiling for women in Jewish organizations this year, it was largely the result of a vision that Barbara Dobkin has pursued for years. Using funds from the Dobkin Family Foundation, she has helped foster a small army of organizations and professionals advocating for the advancement of women in the Jewish world. She provided the seed money four years ago for the advocacy group Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, which has pushed a raft of organizations to re-examine the status of women in their ranks. The cause got a boost this year when the Conservative rabbinate, acting on a startling study, promised new measures to equalize the numbers and the pay of women rabbis. Another group, the Mandel Institute, which trains next-generation leaders for Jewish community federations, committed itself this year to making sure half of its trainees are women. Shepherding this movement forward has been a longtime passion of Dobkins. Ten years ago she founded Ma'yan, the Jewish Women's Project, at the JCC of Manhattan. Unlike many Jewish philanthropists, Dobkin does not drop cash for a few years and then pull out. She has dedicated herself to a few philanthropies that express her vision — creating organizations where there were none — and then stuck with her ideas. It is starting to pay off.
After 25 years as the president at Chicago's Jewish United Fund, Steve Nasatir has become the archetype of the successful Jewish fund raiser. JUF was the largest charity in all of Chicago last year, and the 85th largest philanthropic organization in the country, all built on a metropolitan Jewish community of 270,000. The focus of Nasatir's work has always been the bread-and-butter issues of the Jewish community, like Israel. He pushed for the national formation of an Israel Emergency Campaign, and Chicago's campaign raised more per capita than any other federation. But Nasatir's federation has also become a leader in its social service offerings. This year Nasatir opened a new program to provide job training for disabled adults — the first program of its kind in Chicago. With his eye toward the bottom line, Nasatir has developed a reputation as a prickly character in some of his smaller dealings, but he always applies his hard-nosed ways in defense of the Jewish people. When the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from Israel this year, Nasatir swiftly cut off the Jewish federation's formal contact with the Church.
The head of the largest local charity in America, John Ruskay made UJA-Federation of Greater New York even bigger this year, boosting its annual campaign by $4 million to an all-time high of $145 million. The need was displayed in a path-breaking study released by the federation this year about Jewish poverty in the city. UJA-Federation has been at the lead for years in providing social services to the city's least privileged, far beyond the Jewish community. Ruskay, 58, worked to increase visibility with a street advertising campaign that touts the federation's social services. He's launched New York's first Jewish hospice system, and is placing social workers in synagogues, where he believes that Jews turn first when in need. He led a study mission to Ethiopia and Israel this year and brought together a consortium of American groups to provide emergency aid. But his hardest push has been to increase involvement in Jewish education and synagogue development, including a $1 million program bringing together faculty from Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary to confront problems in congregational schools, where most Jewish children get their religious education.
Lynn Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt
These two philanthropic giants, Jewish charity's premier practitioners of so-called venture philanthropy, have joined forces in a slew of initiatives in Jewish education and synagogue renewal in recent years. Yet they're different enough to merit their own entries. Steinhardt, 64, who made his fortune managing his own hedge fund, is a bombastic New Yorker who thrives on ruffling feathers and in challenging conventional wisdom. Schusterman, 65, who took over her family's foundation four years ago after the death of her husband, Tulsa oilman Charles Schusterman, wields her increasing influence with a soft and humble touch. They've partnered on such projects as Birthright, Hillel leadership, Synagogue Transformation and Renewal and this summer's so-called 20-something summit, kicking off their Professional Leadership Project. Independently, each has set up a free-standing foundation-cum-think tank to manage the growing numbers of initiatives each one is cooking up. Much about the future of Jewish life in America could be determined by how wisely this tandem spends its dollars and on their ability to balance Steinhardt's maverick streak with Schusterman's ability to work with established institutions.
The anonymous donors who gave $45 million to Boston's Jewish day schools this year did not come to their decision spontaneously. The mammoth donation came together after five years of hard work behind the scenes by Barry Shrage, chief executive of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Shrage, 58, has developed a reputation over the years for both innovative programming and good old-fashioned fundraising prowess. The gift to the day schools — the largest in the federation's history — is only Shrage's latest effort in his fight for Jewish continuity, a struggle that many other federations have let fall by the wayside. In the press, it was the day school donation that got Shrage attention, but Shrage's federation has also led the way with its "universal adult literacy program."A new program this year provided day care so that parents of young children could study Jewish texts on weekday mornings. Shrage has not always endeared himself to community leaders around the country with his candid criticism of the way Jewish organizations operate, but the results suggest that others might do well to listen up when he speaks.
After spending a quarter-century rescuing Yiddish books from Dumpsters, clueless grandchildren and collapsing buildings, Aaron Lansky produced a book of his own this fall, titled "Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Books." In it Lansky, 49, recounts the dramatic rise of his National Yiddish Book Center from an accidental collection in a Montreal grad student's apartment to a nationwide organization, headquartered in Amherst, Mass., with 30,000 members and 1.5 million rescued books to its credit. The center recently joined forces with Steven Spielberg to launch a digital Yiddish library that scans crumbling books and prints them on demand. Lansky's mission is more than just saving books, though; it's creating, through love of Yiddish, a new language of American Jewish identity. It's not clear that he's cracked that code yet, but countless lovers of books are with him in the quest.
During the 12 years that he led America's Middle East peace efforts, through the first Bush and Clinton administrations, Dennis Ross was the subject of endless debate. Some Israelis accused him of anti-Israel bias because of his nonstop attempts to win concessions. Some Palestinians saw him as the embodiment of Jewish control of American policy. As he reaffirms in his monumental new history, "The Missing Peace," Ross never saw a conflict between his Jewishness and his diplomatic duties. But he never denied that being Jewish was at the core of his devotion to the process. Since leaving government, Ross, 56, has continued his mission as head of a pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Last year he took on yet another Middle East challenge: chairing the newly formed Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an offshoot of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The institute's first report, submitted to Israel's Cabinet this summer, is a sweeping review of the challenges facing world Jewry, from assim-
ilation to terrorism. Its boldest recommendation: that Israel create a permanent consultative body that would let Diaspora Jews participate in the Israeli policy decisions that will affect their lives — and safety — as Jews around the world.
With a big new history book, "American Judaism," that reviewers are calling a "masterpiece" and the National Jewish Book Awards singled out as the Book of the Year, this Brandeis University history professor is rapidly becoming American Jewry's unofficial scholar in residence. Author or editor of 18 books, Sarna, 49, serves as historian in residence at the National Museum of American Jewish History in his native Philadelphia, chairs an academic advisory board at the Cincinnati-based American Jewish Archives and edits the American Jewish history series of two university presses, at Brandeis and Wayne State. The scholarship comes in his blood; his father, Nachum Sarna, was a distinguished biblical scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A graduate of New York's Ramaz Day School and a former professor at Hebrew Union College, he knows just about every wing of American Judaism from the inside.
One of the deans of American Jewish social research, Gary Tobin has been raising eyebrows for the past decade with his maverick liberal views on conversion, adoption and racial diversity within the Jewish community. This year the San Francisco-based scholar, 55, raised eyebrows yet again by launching a partnership with the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. So far the partnership has produced two major Tobin studies, both pro bono: one on American attitudes toward Israel, the other on anti-Israel trends on campus. Meanwhile, Tobin's own Institute for Jewish & Community Research, founded in 1997 after he left his tenured post at Brandeis University, continues to produce important new religious data. A study of professional development in Jewish organizations, released this fall, showed a deep rift between volunteers and staff and documented the persistent glass ceiling facing women staffers. Another, released in October, found that the fastest growing religious group in America is, the election results notwithstanding, people with no religious identity at all.
Over the last four years, the acerbic comic who created "Seinfeld" has redefined television comedy by creating and starring in his own show about an acerbic comic who created "Seinfeld" and doesn't know what to do with his fame. The series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," now entering its fifth season on HBO, is also redefining the notion of Jews in the American public square by putting the personal Jewish neuroses of David, 57, under a microscope with almost manic glee. During the past season his character managed to offend his Christian wife's parents by nibbling on a Christmas cookie ("You ate our Lord and Saviour?!") and turned a Nativity scene into an interfaith brawl. (His real-life spouse Laurie is one of Hollywood's top Jewish political activists.) Later in the season he held a dinner party that turned into a fight between two survivors — one from the Holocaust, the other from thereality TV show "Survivor" — over who suffered more. Trumping it all, he turned his entire spring season into an elaborate spoof of "The Producers," Mel Brooks's relentlessly tasteless satire of the Holocaust, proving that when it comes to sacred memory, nothing is sacred. Move over, Philip Roth: There's a new bad boy on the American Jewish block.
It has been a banner year for actress Tovah Feldshuh, who earned a fourth Tony nomination for her masterful performance as Israel's fourth prime minister in William Gibson's acclaimed Broadway hit — and near-phenomenon — "Golda's Balcony." The role has Feldshuh turning in emotional hour-and-a-half solo performances eight times a week, and recently became the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. The role is the culmination of a three-decade career that has included a bevy of strong Jewish characters, including a resistance fighter in the 1978 television mini-series "Holocaust," which brought her first Emmy nomination, as well as the breakout title role in the 1975 Broadway production of "Yentl." Feldshuh began acting under the stage name Terry Fairchild and settled into her role as ethnic hero only gradually. If she'd remained a Fairchild, she told the Forward in an interview, "I would have gotten a different splay of rolls, but then I wouldn't have gotten to serve the Jewish community, which has been my pleasure." The National Foundation for Jewish Culture honored her with its 2002 Jewish Image Award.
By deciding to skip one of two games on Yom Kippur during a tight playoff race, Los Angeles first baseman Shawn Green, 32, bolstered his claim as the heir apparent to Jewish baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Though hailed nationally for affirming his faith, some rabbis took issue with his decision to skip one game and play the other. Green's response: "Everyone approaches their religious worship in their own way." He wasn't the only athlete to do it his way this year. Matt Bernstein, a running back for the University of Wisconsin, started his fast early so he could take the field for an afternoon game that started late on Yom Kippur. Like it or not, this individualized brand of religion has increasingly become the norm for American Jews. But it seems that somebody somewhere was cool with Green's and Bernstein's compromises. The Dodgers won the game Green played 3-2, with the slugger hitting the game-winning home run, the 281st of his rising career. Bernstein, with 123 rushing yards, had the best game of his college career.
As executive director of the Jewish Book Council, Carolyn Hessel remains one of the most powerful arbiters of Jewish literature in the United States. The council, which has vastly increased its visibility under Hessel, coordinates some 70 Jewish book fairs at community centers around the country, and oversees the National Jewish Book Awards. Insiders say Hessel can make or break a book by deciding which writers will speak at which local fairs. Certainly the buzz of a JCC tour can play a big role in jumpstarting an author's career, as recent beneficiaries Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer could doubtless attest. Hessel, who served at the Jewish Education Service of North America until being tapped to head the Book Council in the early 1990s, is resolute in her mission, even if her influence occasionally lands her in controversy. "My goal is to promote the reading, writing and understanding of books of Jewish interest," she said in an interview with the Forward. "And I define 'Jewish interest' in the broadest terms."
For her latest novel, "Heir to the Glimmering World," the author's first foray into fiction in seven years, Cynthia Ozick drew inspiration from an unlikely source: Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. But the novel is no children's book. Fat with ideas — braiding together physics, the 1,200-year-old Karaite heretics, Indian philosophy and much else besides — the book is echt Ozick in its intellectual vitality. Equally virtuosic is the author's "whirling, churning, roiling" prose, as a review in these pages called it. And it's not just with her fiction that Ozick continues to earn distinction. With essays on subjects as varied as Helen Keller and the Bible, Ozick, 76, remains one of American Jewry's most searching, probing and incisive voices.
Natalie Portman is having a very good year. The Israeli-born actress, known for her beguiling portrayal of a preteen in "Beautiful Girls" (1996) and her powerful portrayal of Anne Frank on Broadway in 1996, reached a new level of professional credibility this spring with her star turn in the critically acclaimed "Garden State." She's set to follow that up with the upcoming, Oscar-touted Mike Nichols film, "Closer." And her fans are eagerly awaiting her return this winter as Queen Amidala in the third "Star Wars" prequel. Having emigrated from Jerusalem to Long Island at age 3, she's learned to stand up as a vocal if thoughtful defender of Israel and liberal causes, writing letters to the Harvard Crimson defending Israel's record as an occupier and campaigning for John Kerry in Wisconsin. Critics call her one of the most promising young actresses of this generation, while Jewish teenagers across the country call her hot and hang her posters over their beds. At 23, she's arguably done more for young Jewish male self-esteem than anyone since Moshe Dayan.
With his groundbreaking "Maus," a dark comic strip of the Holocaust that depicted Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, Art Spiegelman proved for all time that comics weren't just for kids. By turns whimsical and tortured, it recounted a survivor's memories of the Holocaust and his son's struggles with the legacy of pain. After the book version won a "special citation" from the Pulitzer committee in 1992, the public was left wondering what Spiegelman might do for an encore. After publishing "Maus II" (serialized in the Forward) and a controversial
series of covers for
The New Yorker, the answer came on September 11, 2001, when Spiegelman met his own cataclysm. The result, "In the Shadow of No Towers," recounts the artist's sense of horror in a virtuosic pastiche of styles and techniques. The work, first serialized in the Forward and several European newspapers and published in book form this fall, reaffirming Spiegelman's stature as one of this generation's pre-eminent voices of Jewish angst.
This year's Forward 50 actually includes 51 entries, but the extra one should be seen as more of a cherry-on-top than an afterthought. Madonna, who does not consider herself Jewish, has earned her place as one of the 50 most influential people practicing (some form of) Judaism today. Born Madonna Louise Ciccone, she rose to stardom on a potent mix of dance-hall favorites and image switcheroos, all the while thumbing her nose at authorities of all kind and tweaking her Catholic tradition at every turn. But constant change can be exhausting, and at some point it seemed to leave both artist and audience limp. In the late 1990s, Madonna was introduced to Jewish mysticism via the controversial Kabbalah Centre founded by Rabbi Philip Berg. In a burst of creativity following the birth of her daughter, she produced what many critics believe to be her best album, "Ray of Light," which takes its title from the kabbalistic theory about the origins of the world. Like every other personna she has tried on and discarded, Madonna has turned her latest passion into a worldwide trend — causing a run on red bendels, the trademark string bracelet intended to ward off the evil eye and, by attending a Kabbalah Centre conference in Tel Aviv this year, becoming the biggest thing to hit the Israeli tourism industry since the El Al jingle. Unlike her previous phases, which look in retrospect like bursts in some internal evolution, Madonna seems with Kabbalah to have settled finally into herself and the world. "A Kabbalist sees the world as a unified whole," she said recently. "A Kabbalist believes that he or she has the responsibility to make the world a better place.'' This may be a disappointment to some fans — the fight seems to have gone out of her and, with it, the fiery push of her best work — but for some of us, watching an ancient Jewish tradition influence (and be influenced by) a worldwide icon is nothing short of fantastic.