Hot 50 American rabbis

For those marking their calendars far in advance, the next celebration of Passover will begin at sundown on April 19, 2008.

This means well-connected American Jews have almost a full year to lobby for their favorite rabbi to make the unofficial, but totally buzz-worthy, list of the nation's 50 top rabbis. The pre-Passover list in Newsweek was such a hit that the film-industry players who created it are already gearing up for the sequel.

The goal was to jump start discussions about what it means to be an "influential" rabbi today, said Jay Sanderson, head of the Jewish TV Network and producer of the PBS series "The Jewish Americans." But it's hard to talk about shepherds without discussing their flocks. That was the point.

"The whole concept of what it means to be an effective leader is changing so fast and this is certainly true for the Jews," he said. "So some people are talking about the fact that we didn't ask, 'Who is the most learned rabbi?' or 'Who has the most powerful pulpit? Instead, we specifically asked, 'Who is the most influential rabbi and what does that mean, today?'...

"Some of our rabbis are preaching in what can only be called 'virtual pulpits.' "

When it comes to buzz, it didn't hurt that the list was created by Sanderson and two other top mass-media executives -- Gary Ginsberg of News Corp. and Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton -- rather than by panels of community leaders and scholars.

The result was an earthquake in the Jewish blogosphere and wide coverage in the mainstream press.

It also didn't hurt that three of the top five picks were from Los Angeles, while the rabbi of the largest congregation in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 10 and the leader of New York City's largest congregation fell all the way to No. 23. The top pick was Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance and Moriah Films. The Top 50 list stressed that he is "one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head."

The 2007 edition began with a 100-candidate shortlist and its creators plan to cast their nets wider next year. Feminists were upset that only five women made the cut.

The project's guiding principles can be seen in the 100-point system used to rank the rabbis. First they asked if the rabbis were known around the world, as well as in America. (20 points) The other questions: Do they have media presence? (10 points) Are they leaders in their own cities? (10 points) Are they leaders within their branches of Judaism? (10 points) How many Jews, in one way or another, follow them? (10 points) Do they have political and social clout? (20 points) Have their careers had a major impact on Judaism (10 points) and the wider culture? (10 points)

In the first list, 18 of the top 50 were listed as Reform, 17 as Orthodox, 10 as Conservative, three as Reconstructionist and two as "Jewish Renewal" rabbis. Next time, said Sanderson, the team will make a stronger effort to identify rabbis with the various movements within that complex Orthodox camp.

After all, the Orthodox rabbi whose selection drew the most flack was Rabbi Yehuda Berg at No. 4, founder of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. He has become a cultural phenomenon by preaching red-string power to Madonna, Britney Spears and many other trendsetters. Some Jewish leaders content that Berg is not really a rabbi.

"Any list that has Yehuda Berg on it is a list that I do not want to be on," said an anonymous rabbi who made the list, but vented to the Jerusalem Post. "I think his name up there on the top tells you all you need to know about the Jewish sophistication of these folks."

Sanderson welcomes the ongoing debate. The key, he said, is that rabbis have to take their various takes on the ancient faith directly to modern Jews -- where they are.

"Picture a young Jewish woman on her treadmill watching the Today Show," he said. "How do you talk to her about Judaism? The answer is that you have to go on the Today Show, because she isn't going to be sitting in your congregation during the High Holy Days. That's the reality, right there."