Some of the rabbis from the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list. / The Daily Beast
If we’ve ever watched how a well-intentioned concept can generate unintended consequences, it’s the Newsweek Top 50 Rabbis list.
It was conceived back in 2007 simply because we were genuinely curious about which rabbis were considered leading lights and why.
It evolved over the years into a more reported piece, as we tried to showcase the broad diversity of pacesetters, speakers, teachers, authors, activists, and congregational leaders.
We tried to make it more reflective of the rise of women in the rabbinate and we tried to introduce readers to lesser-known trailblazers.
The list never pretended to use any scientific methodology. We were always transparent about its subjectivity. We always kept our sense of humor.
But despite our lightheartedness, the list started to carry too much weight for too many people.
I spent the past few weeks reading hundreds of nominations for the Forward’s new series, America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis. When we launched this project in early February, we hoped that people would respond — that they would take a little time to tell us about the rabbi who inspired them or their communities — but we never imagined we would receive such an overwhelming response.
People wrote in from across the continent, sharing stories of hope, love, loss and kindness; stories about education, conversion and religious acceptance; stories about rediscovering long-lost faith and rejuvenating entire communities. Some nominations evoked deep sympathy. Some made me laugh out loud. Others made me wish I lived in Toronto or Wilmette, Ill., or Edina, Minn., or countless other corners of North America just so I could catch a glimpse of these men and women in action.
Two weeks ago, when the Forward launched its special editorial project America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis, we had no idea what to expect. We asked people of all ages, denominations and backgrounds to nominate a rabbi who has inspired them or who had a profound effect on their lives or in their communities. But would readers respond? Would they take the time to write 200 words about a rabbi? Would we receive stories from a cross-section of American Jews — and would those stories move us? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES!
America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis marks the first phase of our year-long investigation into the challenges and changing roles of the American rabbinate. Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner launched this initiative in a recent editorial, in which she addressed the effect our stalled economy has had on job opportunities for both young and old rabbis, as well as the difficulties women face breaking into the all-male Orthodox world — and the difficulties the Reform movement faces attracting men to its synagogues. As she concluded, “defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”