So why is Rabbi Barry Freundel, who made national headlines when he was arrested on charges of secretly taping naked women in his synagogue’s ritual bath, included in this year’s Forward 50?
Friends wanted to know. Readers commented on Facebook. Some were simply curious; others posed the question as a challenge.
Does he really belong? Well, yes.
I appreciate the question; it’s a fair one. The Forward 50, a project which began under the auspices of Seth Lipsky, the English Forward’s founding editor, bills itself as a list of the 50 American Jews who have most impacted our national Jewish story in the last year. Most of the people are included for their positive contribution — a brilliant television show, an incisive novel, a creative nonprofit enterprise, a courageous political stand, a new restaurant, a new museum, a scientific breakthrough.
Honestly, as time-consuming as this project is every year, it is one of my favorite tasks at the Forward. It allows us to look for the good in our fellow Jews, an essential antidote to the ceaseless pressure of the news cycle, where missteps and misdeeds often attract the most attention. We work hard to probe beyond the obvious, to broaden our geographic and ideological reach. The accolades are often given to those with whom I may personally disagree, but no matter. Impact is our driving criteria.
Which is why Freundel deserves his place on this year’s list.
Ayelet Galena’s death at the age of 2 from a rare bone marrow disease launched a wave of grief around the world. For months, thousands followed the little girl’s fight for her life with the Eye on Ayelet blog, set up by her parents, Hindy Poupko and Seth Galena.
But more than a year and a half after Ayelet’s death — and a year after Hindy Poupko made the Forward 50 — the little girl’s memory lives on.
“People continue to give to her donor circle without us even asking,” Poupko told the Forward in a phone interview. “We’re always surprised that it’s still on their radar.”
This silent but constant support is what helps the still-grieving mother find the strength to move forward. Most of these acts of kindness are subtle, more substantial than grand, but often empty, gestures.
Ayelet’s story first grabbed the attention of Forward readers with a series of touching stories by then-Director of Digital Media Gabrielle Birkner. Hindy Poupko’s inspirational effort to harness the grief landed her a spot on the Forward 50. And readers made her the surprising choice as the most clicked-on profile in the package, outpacing dozens of far more well-known figures.
Poupko recalled that even this week, she was cc’d on an email chain as part of her role as Managing Director and Director of Israel & International Affairs for the Jewish Relations Council of New York. Scrolling through the exchange, she noticed something peculiar:
“By the way, December 5 is Ayelet’s birthday,” someone had written to the others involved.
Poupko was stunned. “It was such a beautiful thing,” she said. “It’s one thing to remember a yartzeit, it’s another to remember a birthday, especially in such a work environment. I was really moved by that.”
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.
Each year, the Forward publishes the Forward 50, which is our opinionated list of American Jews who made a difference in the preceding 12 months.
Creating the list is a long process for the staff of the Forward. Each of us is required to propose names of candidates — and defend our choices in meetings with colleagues who are equally passionate about their own picks.
Call it a cage fight for Jewish journalists. Jokes aside, it’s a process that ends with a selection of Jewish figures from activism, arts, business and religion — among other fields — that are inspiring, unexpected and just plan fun.
We also ask readers to weigh in with their own suggestions.
The deadline for nominations is October 18. Submissions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Like the advent of cool autumn evenings, like the start of the school year and the wrap up of the baseball season, assembling the Forward 50, the annual list of America’s most influential Jews, is again under way at our office. Staff members have already met twice to discuss the people they believe have had the greatest impact on our political, religious, educational, organizational and cultural life in the past year.
We search for new faces, significant but under-appreciated leaders, and those who seem to be on the brink of something very important. We try hard to break free of the New York-Washington-Los Angeles axis, looking for Jews elsewhere in the country who are doing and discovering and creating something of note.
In this political year, we are trying to move beyond the campaign trail to focus on science, business, food, even sports. And we make a special effort to search for women, who have been as traditionally underrepresented in the Forward 50 as they are in Jewish leadership nationwide.
This is where you, the reader, come in.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that we depend on nominations from our far-flung readers to augment our own work, helping us to identify people and activities outside our usual spheres of attention. There are only a few criteria: American citizen. Jewishly identified. Well-defined impact on his or her field. And, preferably, a new name to our list.
So please, send in your nominations to email@example.com, or through the postal service to 125 Maiden Lane, 8th floor, New York, NY 10038. Tell us why we should consider the nominee, and send along a reasonable amount of supporting evidence. Please include your name and contact information in case we want to learn more from you.
The deadline for accepting nominations is September 25. The Forward 50 will be published in early November.
Meantime, we wish you all a happy, healthy and fulfilling new year.
It’s not every day that The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s website, responds to this blog, and I’m glad they did. In our latest back and forth, the editor pointed out that our presentation on our website of this year’s Forward 50 was confusing at first.
Fair enough. It was.
Though the Forward 50 was started more than 15 years ago by Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of the English Forward, it’s only been in the last few years that we have experimented with presenting the names, faces and profiles on line in new and interesting ways.
The old adage that all publicity is good publicity relates to journalism, as well. So I was pleased to see that The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s website, thought enough of our annual Forward 50 project to write about it.
Of course, what interested The Blaze wasn’t the list of 50 American Jews who have shaped the Jewish story in politics, science, culture, the media, religion, advocacy and even sports. No, it was the 51st name on the list — in our parlance, the “Plus One” — that got the attention.