Sisterhood Blog

Why Newsweek's 'Most Influential Rabbis' List Is So Short on Women

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Newsweek magazine is out with its annual list of what it deems the 50 most influential rabbis in the country. As usual, women are a tiny number of those selected by the three entertainment-industry figures: the heads of Sony Pictures, News Corp. and Jewish Television Network Productions — all men, and all based in Los Angeles. For those of us in the Jerusalem of the Diaspora — and by that I mean Brooklyn, or at least New York City — some of the choices may seem biased toward the left coast and the gender of the selection committee members.

You can see the complete list and their criterion and points-rating system here.

You may notice that there are just 5 women deemed important enough to have made the cut — that’s only 10 percent. And yet, it’s an improvement over last year, when there were just three women out of the 50 rabbis chosen.

To be sure, women are a minority among rabbis in their respective movements.

In the Reform movement, which began ordaining women in 1972, women make up 30% to 35% of working rabbis, says Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

In the Conservative movement, which began ordaining women in 1983, women make up about 12% of Rabbinical Association members, says Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the RA’s incoming executive vice president.

Nonetheless, both said, there are more female rabbis doing important, visible work than is obvious from the list authors’ choices. “It’s pretty sad that they could only find five women, and it reflects the limited range of their vision,” says Rabbi Ellenson. You can see more about her organization here.

Rabbi Schoenfeld, who takes the helm of the RA in July, noted that three of the five women who made the list — Rabbis Sharon Brous (ranked #31), spiritual leader of the L.A. congregation Ikar, Naomi Levy (#35), who writes about spirituality and liturgy, and Jill Jacobs (#48), with the Jewish Funds for Justice, are Conservative rabbis.

The other two women are Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (#18), incoming head of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (#25), a Reconstructionist rabbi who leads the gay and lesbian synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Taking the top three spots on this year’s list are Rabbis David Saperstein, who runs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Marvin Hier, who is Orthodox and runs the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Mark Charendoff, who has Orthodox rabbinic ordination and runs the Jewish Funders Network. Said Charendoff: “I’m not sure I understand how the list gets put together, it’s not like we’re interviewed about it. I really couldn’t say anything about why someone is on it or not, or high or low. Last year I was on the list for the first time, and I was incredulous last year, so I wasn’t shocked I was on it this year but I was certainly surprised at being so high up.”

The very idea of ranking rabbis rankles Rabbi Schonfeld, though. “Picking 50 and then putting them in an order is not consistent with the sacred work we do,” she said. “I don’t start from the place where the list starts.”

At the end of the day, the list reflects only the point of view of the three men who assembled it, says Rabbi Ellenson. “I don’t think there are any criterion for making the list beyond who these guys know.”



Comments
Gary Thu. Apr 9, 2009

And we wonder why Judaism is declining. Influence is very personal. Personally I feel that a synagogue for gays and lesbians is sacrilege. I have no personal animosity towards these people but the Torah specifically says this is an unnatural act and should be prohibited. While the Torah does not prohibit women Rabbis, tradition says no. Now we want to say who is most influential. To me the most influential rabbi is Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld from Chabad of Poway in California because he was the catalyst which brought me back to Judaism. You will never hear about him because he is a junior Rabbi in a small congregation which gets little publicity but it is personal contact which is influencing.

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