Forward Thinking

Why We Picked the Pope — and Angelina Jolie

By Jane Eisner

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The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein had a fascinating story on Sunday about how Conservative Catholics have felt left out of their new pope’s embrace. Pope Francis may have soaring approval ratings because of his humble demeanor and inclusive language, but American Catholics in the church’s conservative wing are feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled, Goodstein wrote.

And this was before the Forward 50 went online.

We didn’t pick Pope Francis as our “Plus One” just to further rattle Catholics concerned that the leader of their church isn’t sufficiently doctrinaire about abortion, gay rights and other touchstone issues. But I imagine that being cited by a Jewish news organization for exemplary contributions to the American Jewish story will not help the pope’s popularity among his more conservative flock.

That’s the thing about lists. Especially this list. It’s only effective if it is surprises.

The idea of adding a non-Jew as the 51st (or 52nd) name in this annual exercise preceded my tenure as editor-in-chief, so I can’t claim the credit. During my five years here so far, we’ve named Father Paul Ouderkirk, the priest in Postville, Iowa, who championed workers rights at the troubled Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant; President Obama for being the topic of endless conversation — pro and con — in the Jewish community; and Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, for their high-profile intermarriage.

Some years go blank. This year we had too many choices.

Or so we thought.

Pope Francis, 76, was the first name, debated for weeks. He has an unusually warm relationship with an Argentinian rabbi, has spoken in favor of pluralism and acceptance, plans to visit Israel early next year, and altogether has opened his arms to the world. As we wrote, “Francis has the power to affect how more human beings view the Jewish people than any one else on earth.” And so far, it seems, he’s been doing a pretty good job.

But he’s new. Untested. Hasn’t really changed doctrine or substantively ruled. That trip to Israel is not for a few months. So we weren’t sure this was the right year.

Then someone mentioned Angelina Jolie. (Yes, it was a man.) Her impact is more narrow, but easier to verify. With one opinion piece (published, alas, in the Times and not here) Jolie, 38, opened up an emotional conversation among women and the men who love them about taking radical, preventive steps to try and forestall a kind of breast cancer prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.

A less obvious pick. Sexier (naturally) but with a smaller footprint.

And then — yes, this is a very collaborative process — someone else said: Call a tie! Select them both.

So that’s what we did. This may be the first time that a celibate cleric is mentioned on the same Jewish list as a gorgeous, controversial actress, but like I said: We aim to surprise.

And to say that we are grateful for these non-Jews, and countless others, who enrich the lives of our community in disparate and highly important ways.

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