The annual Newsweek list of America’s “Top Rabbis” — now hosted by The Daily Beast, since Newsweek doesn’t exist anymore as a print product — was published today, a day after the Forward’s first-ever reader-driven project looking for the nation’s most inspiring rabbis. The contrast is fascinating.
Newsweek’s list is a classic journalistic attempt to assess impact on a national scale, and so veers heavily toward names you already know. By my count, there were only seven new faces on this year’s list, and most of them were ranked in the bottom-fifth of importance.
This isn’t a rap on the authors, not at all. Gabrielle Birkner, a former Forward editor and a terrific journalist, put together this year’s list, with an assist from Abigail Pogrebin, another superb journalist and sometime Forward contributor. Since these two women got involved in the last few years, Newsweek’s effort has been a little less predictable and certainly more gender diverse than previously.
Stands to reason, since Gabi dreamed up the Sisterhood 50 in 2010 when she was editor of our women’s issues blog as a response to the persistent absence of women on Newsweek’s list until then.
The Forward’s project had a different purpose: To search out the untold stories of profound inspirational leadership, told not from our offices in New York City but from the Jews who had these memorable rabbinic experiences, direct from the pews, the classroom, the Hillel, the hospice. The entry on Rabbi Asher Lopatin illustrates this point.
I learn a lot about leadership by overseeing the painstaking but ultimately rewarding process of compiling the Forward 50 each year, of trying to identify the American Jews who have had the greatest impact on our lives in a variety of fields, from politics to culture to sports. And I learn even more about leadership by analyzing how these 50 profiles are read.
One of the astonishing aspects of doing journalism online is that we can ascertain how many people click on a given story down to the person. In print, you can only make educated guesses about what stories are read, whether a snappy headline or a compelling photograph will entice the reader to delve deeper, or to turn the page. But online we know precisely how much traffic every item that we post receives, and this can help us understand what touches readers.
For this year’s Forward 50, readers have been touched by the heartfelt, the unusual, the unexpected. As of Monday evening, Nov. 12, the first day all 50 profiles were posted online, the most read was not about the largest political donor in the land, or the superstar singer, or the second ranking leader in the House of Representatives, or even the King of Comedy Central.
No, the most read profile was of Hindy Poupko Galena, a New York City mother who chronicled her baby daughter’s struggle against a fatal disease and galvanized an outpouring of support through cyberspace.
And the surprises continue.