God help us if the very wealthy, organizationally well-positioned, and pop-culture famous are considered the “most influential Jews” of our times. Here is my corrective to such feeble celebrity catalogues: A list of profound and substantive Jews (mainly educators, writers, and rabbis) who are making real contributions to the long-term future of Israel and the Jewish People.
Published in The Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2021; and Israel Hayom, September 12, 2021. Print-friendly copy
It has become a Rosh Hashana tradition for newspapers (including The Jerusalem Post) to publish lists of the “most influential” or “most prominent” Jews. The lists are a potpourri of the wealthy, pop-culture famous, and organizationally well-positioned, alongside the top politicians of the day.
This disappoints me.
While I admire Jewish philanthropists and successful tech entrepreneurs, and I am proud of Israeli Olympic medal winners like Linoy Ashram and Artem Dolgopyat, there is little need to make the extra effort to promote these people.
And God help us if sports heroes, movie stars (Julia Haart – ugh!), and trendsetter fashionistas are the “most influential Jews” of our times.
The same goes for Douglas Emhoff, the very loosely Jewish husband of US vice president Kamala Harris. With all due respect for the high office he commands (“America’s second gentleman”), his influence on Jewish life to-date and on America’s future is, well, dubious.
Here I offer a different type of list: A smattering of “interesting” Jews to follow in 5782. Interesting in my book means profound, substantive, and making a real contribution to the long-term future of Israel and the Jewish People.
Readers will also notice that the people on this list are religious Jews, many of whom are educators or writers, which I see as a corrective to the usual celebrity lists where such people are perennially underrepresented.
Therefore, without any ranking, I encourage you to pay attention to these ten people over the coming year:
* Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie. Relocated from New York to Dubai, Rabbi Abadie is the senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates and the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities. The fact that such positions now exist, in the wake of the Abraham Accords, is miraculous. Abadie represents Judaism at its intellectual and spiritual finest to Gulf Jews and Arabs alike.
* Aliza Bloch. The new mayor of Bet Shemesh is an experienced educator who took on a poor, badly managed, and divided city, which she is somehow turning around. Even the hard-bitten and warring haredi factions in the city have learned to appreciate her leadership. They too will benefit if Bloch can bring more hi-tech businesses to the city.
* Rachel Heber. Ever since the untimely passing from corona of her saintly husband, Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber, Rabbanit Heber has assertively taken over the reins of the “Matnat Chaim” non-profit organization he founded, which facilitates and promotes altruistic live kidney donations. Even in our pandemic times, which places kidney donors (and especially recipients) at the highest risk, she has managed to expand the organization’s reach and success rate.
* Matan Kahana. Israel’s new Religious Affairs minister is confidently advancing important reforms of the state-sponsored kashrut and conversion bureaucracies. Some of his plans may yet be stymied by the Haredi-led “Rabbinocracy,” but I hope that the high standards of transparency and probity that he insists on will stick.
* Rabbi Doron Perez. The CEO of World Mizrachi has revitalized the organization, driving it out of sleepy stupor into dynamic leadership of the Religious Zionist world with real influence in our “national institutions” (JAFI and WZO). Mizrachi’s educational programming around the world is at a zenith too.
* Sivan Rahav Meir. A rising star in both quality television journalism and Torah education. Her portraits on TV2 news of Israeli leaders and intellectuals always are smart and sensitive, and her learned Bible lectures are followed online by tens of thousands of people.
* Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon. This dynamic and brilliant educator from Alon Shvut just became the rabbi of the Gush Etzion regional council, and is well on his way towards a candidacy for the post of chief rabbi of Israel. Rimon is a true rabbinical entrepreneur, having founded a dozen Torah teaching start-up ventures, as well as important community programs (like JobKatif/La’Ofek). His halachic decision-making and writing are crystal-clear and suffused with love for the State of Israel.
* Amit Segal. Unquestionably one of the leading journalists in Israel today. He fearlessly advances a counter-cultural, right-wing perspective on this country’s most-watched (and almost uniformly left-wing) television news program. Segal is an insightful reporter, which explains the runaway success of his self-published new book on Israeli politics.
* Yoav Sorek. The erudite editor of the important (Hebrew-language) journal Hashiloach, which in just five years has become the largest (and most provocative) paid-circulation intellectual platform in Israel. Sorek’s personal writing is sensitive and penetrating, and has become even more so since the terrorist murder of his son, Dvir, just over one year ago.
* Rabbi Asher Weiss. Probably the only Ultra-Orthodox scholar and halachic decision-maker who is truly respected in the Lithuanian, Hassidic and Religious Zionist worlds simultaneously, in Israel and around the Jewish world. He also is unique in understanding the need for meaningful structural transformations in the Haredi world.