Top 10 Reasons I Hate Lists: The Newsweek Ranking of the Rabbis

Within hours of the publication of yesterday’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis list by Newsweek Magazine, I began to hear complaints about this list.

On Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the blogosphere and in person, people complained about the idea that a mainstream magazine like Newsweek (which is for sale if anyone’s interested) would publish an unscientific listing of top rabbis.

Year after year, the only rabbis who seem to like this list are the ones who make the ranking and can then add the accolade to their bio and have their temple, synagogue or organization issue a press release.

One comment on Facebook regarding the list chastised these influential rabbis. “Personally, I have little respect for influential rabbis. It means they are spending too much time on their public image and too little on being rabbis.”

Others took exception with the high number of non-congregational rabbis who made the list. “Really? They’re more influential than the rabbi who has spent his (or her) whole life in a pulpit serving the needs of their congregants? I’d have to say, I’m not sure that’s really true. They’re more visible certainly, but fame isn’t the same as influence.”

Julie Wiener of The NY Jewish Week wrote the Top Ten Reasons To Hate Newsweek’s Annual Top Rabbis List. I have to agree with many of her arguments. I too was surprised at the number of misspellings on the list. After all, if Shmuley Boteach and Avi Weiss are so influential and famous, how can their names be botched in a high-profile magazine like Newsweek (Schmuley and Weis!)? By the way, I know a few out-of-work, not-very-influential rabbis who’d be willing to proofread future articles on the Newsweek website.

I agree with Julie that it’s odd that Newsweek runs such a list for rabbis and not for any other group of religious leaders. Honestly, I don’t think I’d find a Top 50 list of imams or priests to be very interesting and that’s exactly how I imagine the 98% of the country’s population that isn’t Jewish feel about this list (not to mention the 98% of Jewish Americans who have never heard of these rabbis and could care less about how influential two guys think they are).

The #1 rabbi on the list, Yehuda Krinsky, is the leader of Chabad Lubavitch. He’s very influential when it comes to Chabad, but probably much less influential for non-Chabad following Jews. Not to mention, there’s a deceased rabbi who still holds more influence over Lubavitchers than even Krinksy.

I’ve never really liked these lists anyway. After all, some “Who’s Who” lists are just made up of the people in that field who agreed to purchase the “Who’s Who” book after it was published. Other lists (e.g., 40 under 40) are just made up of people who were nominated by one person rather than an actual election.

This list really comes down to who are the most well known rabbis in the country. Getting published, running an organization, or being elected president for a two-year term in your denomination’s rabbinic group should put you somewhere on this list. Short of that, having a television show and hanging out with Michael Jackson or the President puts you in the top ten. A rabbi of a 100-member congregation in a small, nobody-ever-visits city may be very influential in that community but the two Hollywood moguls (Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Time Warner Exec VP Gary Ginsberg) who make the Newsweek list will never have heard of him/her.

If Newsweek really wants to know who the most influential rabbis in the country are, they should probably take a field trip to any Hebrew School where a rabbi stands in front of a class of 2nd graders once a week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Kagan Rules in Favor of Chinese Food on Christmas

On Christmas Day 2007, I wrote that Mike Huckabee, then a presidential hopeful, liked to eat Chinese food on Christmas like many Jewish people.

Huckabee explained his family’s Christmas tradition: “…we have an unusual tradition that after the Christmas Eve service we go out and eat Chinese food. Don’t ask me why.”

Jewish people flock to Chinese restaurants on Christmas because they’re the only restaurants open. The oft told joke is that the difference between the Hebrew calendar and the Chinese calendar is about 1,000 years — which means that this was how long Jews had to go without Chinese food.

Now, today we get word from the woman who is likely to be the next Supreme Court justice that she also frequents Chinese restaurants on Christmas.

In Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina probed Kagan on the threats to the United States, asking her if she was unnerved by the Christmas day bomber. He asked her, “Where were you on Christmas Day?”

To which the Jewish Kagan responded, “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman quipped, “I could almost see this one coming.”

And Senator Chuck Schumer explained to the committee, “Those are the only restaurants that are open!” (Video below)

Perhaps this Christmas Eve at a table in a Washington D.C. Chinese restaurant will sit Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Elana Kagan, just having a nice Chinese dinner like many other Jews around the country.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Newsweek Magazine Affirms Female Orthodox Rabbi

Newsweek Magazine released its annual list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.

Now in its fourth year, Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., list who they think are the 50 most influential rabbis in the U.S.

While the yearly ranking is merely based on the opinions of two Hollywood moguls and some unscientific criteria, it generates a lot of buzz. There’s also a certain amount of ego that becomes manifest among rabbis when the list is released each year, in addition to debate regarding who was ranked too high and who was missing from the list altogether. My teacher Irwin Kula, who ascended from #10 in 2009 to an impressive #7 this year, tweeted a link to the Newsweek list with the question “How can I not share this!”

What is most interesting in this year’s list is which rabbi was ranked as the 36th most influential rabbi in the U.S. She is new to the rabbinate and new to the Newsweek ranking. Her name is Sara Hurwitz and a lot of controversy surrounds her. Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) ordained her as a rabbi a couple years ago giving her an acronym for a title and then changing it to “rabba,” a title that irked many in the Orthodox world. Earlier this year, under much pressure from the Right, he backed down and decided to not go through with creating women rabbis.

However, it would appear that Lynton and Ginsberg side with Avi Weiss on this one. And so Rabba Sara Hurwitz becomes one of the most influential rabbis in the country according to Newsweek Magazine, while among the people she is supposed to serve she is not even considered a rabbi.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Email, May it Rest in Peace

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs
Email is like a cat. I don’t know if it has nine lives, but people still use this form of communication even though it’s been pronounced dead many times in recent years.
The general consensus among experts in online communication is that social media is killing the medium of email. Just as companies and organizations are getting pretty good at making their email newsletters look professional, it seems that more people are rendering email as the means of communication from a bygone era (sorry ConstantContact.com!).
As a rabbi who has worked a lot with Jewish teen communities, I learned a few years ago that teens had given up on email. To reach their virtual inbox, the communication has to come in the form of a text message, online chat, or Facebook message. For the young generation that’s never had to handwrite a letter, email just seems too formal.
Once I noticed that teens were neither reading nor replying to standard email messages I decided to give out my cellphone number. All of a sudden I found that the communication with the teens was flowing via text messages.
I’m not saying that teens will look at an email account the same way they look at a Fax machine or a VHS tape, but they’re preferred method of communication doesn’t involve the @ sign.
So, how does one reach the target audience if email is dead (or at least on life support)?
Englin Consulting added its voice to the “Email is Dead” discussion by blogging:
“…the advent of devices like iPhones and Droids that make it easy to quickly delete emails without even looking at them, plus the spreading reach of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus the email overload many people experience in their inboxes equals the demise of mass email lists as a productive tool. Facebook’s COO recently revived the debate, saying that because young people don’t use email the demise of email is imminent.”
However, the consulting firm still maintains that email is an important and effective commuications tool, albeit one that could use some strategic rethinking.
On its blog they offer three things to consider about your organization’s email list, including 1. Size matters; 2. Content matters; and, 3. Email matters.
Email isn’t dead, although it’s dying. A recent study, quoted by Englin Consulting, reveals that 58% of people check email first thing in the morning before doing anything else online. And mass email lists remain a critical and even growing component of many organization’s fundraising, advocacy, and education program — one that still delivers results. However, that same study showed that more than 10% of people log onto Facebook first thing, 20% start with a search engine or portal site, and 5% head first to online news.
Businesses and organizations need to be more creative with their email marketing. Maybe social media hasn’t killed email, but it’s certainly giving it a beating… Don’t believe me? Just go here and click the “SMACK” button.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Leona Helmsley’s Gift to Disabled IDF Vets

When Leona Helmsley, the NYC hotel operator and real estate investor known as “The Queen of Mean,” died she was mostly talked about as a billionaire who donated a large portion of her fortune to her dog.

However, her Charitable Trust (The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust) has recently announced grants totaling more than $10.1 million to help fund three major projects in Israel, including one that has been very close to my heart since a trip to Israel in 2002.

In addition to multi-million dollar grants to the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Helmsley’s trust also gave $2 million for the benefit of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, which will help build a state-of-the-art center in Beersheva for rehabilitation and support services for disabled veterans and victims of terrorism. This grant also will help construct and equip the center in order to provide a supportive environment for rehabilitation and integration of disabled veterans and victims of terrorism in southern Israel. The center, whose total cost is $23.3 million, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010.

My wife and I were vacationing at the Dead Sea in December 2002 when we met some new friends and became acquainted with Nechei Tzahal (Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization).

We met Yisrael Abayov, a successful architect from Tel Aviv, who shared his story of fighting for Israel in 1978 when he was hit with a bullet. It was a direct shot to his left temple leaving him disabled for the rest of his life. He was lucky to be alive. In addition to Yisrael, there were hundreds of men at our hotel who became severely disabled while fighting for Israel. Some, like Yisrael, can barely walk anymore, even with the aid of a cane or a walker. Others are amputees, missing an arm or a leg, and bound to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. Others still, were not injured while on active duty, but rather suffered life-long disabilities from a terrorist explosion while waiting at a bus stop just trying to get back to the base after a weekend off. They were at the Dead Sea to find some temporary relief from their disabling pain through the therapeutic powers of the Dead Sea.

They come each year for two or three weeks, and most of the hotels are very accommodating to their needs, displaying a level of handicapped accessibility that is unmatched anywhere in the world. The Israeli Government pays for their much-deserved vacation, but if it is not taken by the end of the year, the opportunity is lost. Thus, many of them make their vacation to the Dead Sea at the end of every December; making the Dead Sea, in essence, the unofficial convention and reunion of Israel’s disabled veterans.

I spent an hour talking about politics and religion with a couple of veterans who were on the beach with their wives. One of these men, whose foot was blown off by a land mine in the Sinai Desert in 1956, explained that he and his wife had been coming to the Dead Sea for three decades and it is the only time he feels any relief from his injuries. When I remarked to the other veteran how nice it is that the Israeli government provides them with a complimentary vacation for a couple of weeks, he looked me in the eyes, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Trust me, we paid for it.”

I’m glad that in death, Leona Helmsley (born Lena Mindy Rosenthal) has been able to improve on her reputation. The woman who served a prison term, famously said that only the little people should pay taxes, and left the bulk of her $4 billion estate to her Maltese, has posthumously become philanthropic to some very important causes.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Wimbledon: Longest Match Ever

At Wimbledon, John Isner won the fifth set, 70-68, finally beating Nicolas Mahut in the longest tennis match ever recorded in tennis history.

I was curious whether Isner might be Jewish based on his last name, but a quick Web search answered that question.

On Isner’s personal website, he answered the following question from a fan:

YOU ARE A GREAT ROLE MODEL, BY ANY CHANCE, ARE YOU OF JEWISH DESCENT?
Submitted by Judith Meyer, Briarcliff, New York

Isner: “I’m glad to hear that you think I’m a good role model, i appreciate that comment. Actually I am not of jewish decent but I get asked that frequently I guess because my last name sounds somewhat jewish.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Avot: My Teachers

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It was my 7th Father’s Day as a Dad. I love Father’s Day because it’s a chance to honor fathers and to appreciate fatherhood.

Yesterday, in addition to thinking about my father and father-in-law who have both been influential teachers in my life, I also took some time to consider the role of my teachers as father figures.

Last month, while in New York City, I spent an afternoon honoring the memory of two of my teachers. I went to the Beit Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I spent six years learning the ancient texts of the Jewish people. There, a gathering of my teachers, classmates, and current rabbinical students paid tribute to Rabbi Morris Shapiro, of blessed memory. Rabbi Shapiro, ordained by Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, spent many years as a sage consultant in the Beit Midrash where he was available to help students struggling over a passage of Talmud text. This was the 30-day anniversary of his recent death marking the end of the shloshim period and it was a fitting learning session in his honor. Sitting there with my own rabbi — Danny Nevins — and two of my classmates — Josh Cahan and Rachel Ain — I couldn’t help but to think of all the wisdom that Rabbi Shapiro had passed from the Old Country to the rabbis of tomorrow.

From the Seminary, I ventured downtown to an apartment across the street from the Empire State Building. This apartment — the home of my beloved college professor Jonas Zoninsein, of blessed memory — was now a shivah home where his family, friends and colleagues gathered to reminisce about his life. Professor Zoninsein was my teacher at James Madison College at Michigan State. A scholar of Latin American economics, he taught with devotion to the subject and a passion for education. I had the merit of sharing some stories from my undergraduate experience in his classroom with his daughter Manuela.

Both of these teachers were so passionate about their teaching that they took on a fatherly role to their students.

And then yesterday morning, on Father’s Day, I received word that a project I created for one of the many classes I took with Rabbi Neil Gillman at JTS was included in a website in his honor. “Beit Nachum” was created to honor Rabbi Gillman, a theologian who taught at JTS for decades. As the website states, “Just as the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai disseminated and built upon the Torah of their teachers as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we honor and build upon the Torah of our teacher as Beit Nachum. We have learned, through Rabbi Gillman’s example, that the words of the living God can inspire lifetime of intellectual integrity, theological courage and humility.”

During my time at the Seminary, Rabbi Gillman played a very father-like role to me and many other students. He was kind and gracious, but wasn’t afraid to let a student know when they possessed the potential to do better. I decided to submit a creative midrash on Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) for inclusion on the Beit Nachum website. It is the story of this biblical event as told by Isaac as a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. It is evidence of the freedom that Rabbi Gillman gave his students to be creative and to think and write out-of-the-box.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to all of my teachers… Thank you.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Mark Zuckerberg, Emily Gould & Rabbeinu Gershom

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

What do Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, blogger Emily Gould, and the 10th-11th century scholar Rabbeinu Gershom have in common?

They all articulated their views about privacy.

Zuckerberg was criticized last month for Facebook’s new privacy settings. Over 500 million worldwide users of Facebook had more of their information made public because Zuckerberg believes that “if people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Zuckerberg, now 26-years-old, created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room as a way to connect co-eds in the Ivy League. Today, it’s used by all ages across the globe to divulge more personal information than anyone had originally planned.

Zuckerberg’s first privacy controversy came on November 6, 2007 when he announced a new social advertising system at an event in LA called Facebook Beacon. The application enabled users to share information with their Facebook “friends” based on their browsing activities on other sites. Beacon came under attack from both privacy groups and individuals with Zuckerberg ultimately taking responsibility and offering an easier way for users to opt out of the service.

Emily Gould, author of “And the Heart Says Whatever,” has also been affected by the sharing of private information on the Web. She writes in the current issue of Newsweek: “I should have known that the blog, an anonymous diary of my personal life, was a bad idea. As a reporter for the gossip site Gawker, I spent my days deconstructing similar attempts at concealment. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security.

Disclosing her personal information and experiences with everything from cooking to an office romance gone bad, robbed Gould of her private life. Everything quickly became public and spread around Cyberspace. Her former boyfriend revealed secrets of their relationship in a tell-all article in the New York Post Sunday magazine.

Gould, who “spent the next few days wishing the Web away,” is the classic example of someone who’s life was changed by over-sharing. In the Information Age, TMI doesn’t just mean sharing too much information; it means that your too much information has gone viral on the Web.

And that brings us to Rabbeinu Gershom. Centuries before the invention of e-mail and status updates, this sage understood a thing or two about privacy. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the leading German rabbi was Gershom, known by German Jewry as Rabbenu ((our Rabbi) Gershom. According to the tradition, he wrote four special ordinances (takkanot) which differed with Jewish law in Babylonia.

While his most famous decree concerned the outlaw of polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom also made it a major sin to open and read someone else’s mail. This legal ruling ensured the privacy and safety of mercantile transactions between Jewish communities.

This sort of makes us wonder what Rabbeinu Gershom would make of the voluntary sharing of personal material on the Web today. Perhaps, someone should share Rabbeinu Gershom’s teaching with Mark Zuckerberg so his company locks down users’ personal information that should be kept private.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

My Rabbi Saved My Life

This past March, around the same time I began to blog for The New York Jewish Week, a banner ad on the Jewish paper’s website caught my attention.

The ad featured a head-shot of a man and the text “My Rabbi Saved My Life.” First, I thought “what a great ad since it grabs your attention and makes you want to click through to see what it’s all about.”

Clicking on the link took me to a website for The New York State Diabetes Campaign. There, I learned that this was part of a Faith Fights Diabetes campaign aimed at religious leaders and encouraging them to speak with their congregations about diabetes and general health. On the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign website, there are seven religious leaders including a guru, rabbi, priest, minister, pastor, and two imams (one male and one female).

My father was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when I was two-years-old, so this is certainly a cause that I am directly connected to and one that has my full support. But I also wondered whether it is the role of clergy to get involved in the medical lives of those in our congregations.

This subject truly resonated with me recently when the spouse of one of my congregants asked me to intervene in his wife’s eating habits. He felt that she, a diabetic, was eating poorly and putting herself at a great health risk. I thought of the Faith Fights Diabetes campaign and how rabbis (and other faith leaders) really could play a positive role in the health lives of our congregants. When I served an internship at a large synagogue in New Jersey, we had two congregational nurses on staff who served important roles for synagogue members. There, the rabbi might refer a congregant to one of the nurses, but I really don’t see a reason why the rabbi himself cannot speak openly about the importance of eating right, exercising and getting regular medical exams.

The campaign encourages clergy to learn how to fight the diabetes epidemic in congregations. It recommends that a poster about diabetes is hung in public areas of the church, temple, mosque, or faith-based organization. Some practical tips for clergy include serving healthier food at congregational events and discussing diabetes in a sermon (sample sermons are on the website).

As spiritual leaders, we have great influence on our congregants. Why shouldn’t we use our pulpit to promote healthy living and ensure that the people we care about are informed about Diabetes?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Even the Weather in Jerusalem Has Become Political

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

The LA Times Babylon & Beyond blog reported on Sunday that Apple has reunified Jerusalem.

Has Steve Jobs become a United Nations peacekeeper? Did Apple release a new app that unites the holy city of Jerusalem during these tense times? Maybe you thought Jerusalem had already been reunified several decades ago.

Well, it turns out that even the weather in Jerusalem has been politicized. Yahoo, who runs the Apple iPhone Weather app with information gathered by Weather.com changed created two choices for viewing the weather in Jerusalem – East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. This is different than the designations on Yahoo’s own site and on the Weather.com site.

Edmund Sanders reports from Jerusalem for the LA Times:

Right-leaning Israeli politicians like to refer to Jerusalem as their “undivided capital.” But iPhone users here and around the world found recently that the storied, disputed city had been split in two.

In the smart phone’s weather application, the listing for “Jerusalem” disappeared earlier this month and was replaced by “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem.”

Both Israelis, who dominate the west part of the city, and Palestinians, the majority in the east, claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War, though Palestinians (and most of the international community) never accepted it.

The debate over how, or whether, to divide Jerusalem is still one of the thorniest issues in Mideast peace talks.

Perhaps frustrated with the lack of progress in the peace process, iPhone engineers apparently decided to impose their own mini-version of a two-state solution by partitioning the city and, in essence, forcing users to pick sides.

A similar change took place on Yahoo’s weather site, which gave users the option of checking the temperature in “Jerusalem, West Bank, Palestine” or “Jerusalem, Israel.”

Reaction was mixed. A few Israelis and Palestinians got a kick out of the option, even though temperature information and other data were identical for East and West Jerusalem.

But many Israelis, here and in the U.S., took deep offense and accused Apple, the company that makes the iPhone, of “political propaganda.”

One Jewish advocacy group, American Israeli Action Coalition, called the changes “extremely hurtful to the American Israeli community” and said they “smack of anti-Semitism.” Israel’s U.S. ambassador reportedly sent a letter of protest to Apple chief Steve Jobs and Yahoo chief Carol Bartz.

Well, it turns out that both Apple and Yahoo reversed their political decision and reunified Jerusalem.

The following statement was released: “The issue for the iPhone Weather app has been fully resolved. The fix was pushed to all production servers and verified…. This resolves both the issue with the default weather location Jerusalem as well as searches for “Jerusalem”, “East Jerusalem” and “West Jerusalem”. One note: Users who have already added the locations “West Jerusalem” or “East Jerusalem” on the Weather app will continue to see these names on the client until they remove these locations and add Jerusalem again.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller