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Why Newsweek's 50 Most Influential Rabbis...Aren't

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Newsweek may be selling a lot of extra issues of its Passover edition thanks to its annual "50 Most Influential Rabbis" list, but that same list is having the opposite effect for the magazine's journalistic integrity. Newsweek's rabbis list is a transparent joke - something that even the magazine acknowledges - and that's why I made the decision that The Jewish Channel will stand alone among Jewish news outlets in not granting it a single word of coverage.

The Jewish community has real problems, and always has, and journalism is one of the tools that can be used to fix them - but Newsweek isn't interested in that journalism. While we're all familiar with the Catholic clergy molestation scandals that were widely-reported in Newsweek and almost every other American news publication, virtually no mainstream media outlets touched the rabbinic sex abuse scandals that were being revealed at the same time. And Newsweek comes right about last in media outlets covering the Agriprocessors kosher meat labor scandal of 2008.

These are just two real issues that deserve real coverage from enterprising journalistic outlets, but Newsweek wasn't there. No, Newsweek prefers to cover the Jewish community primarily with its annual rabbis list that is simultaneously pandering and insulting, and the antithesis of a fulfillment of any journalistic mission.

The very idea of a "most influential rabbis" list is of questionable value in the first place. But Newsweek does seemingly everything in its power to make sure we all get the joke. For starters, it's an annual list in its third year, and there are still rabbis this year who are appearing for the first time - like #17 Menachem Genack, whose job title and responsibilities haven't changed in decades. And truly, by what measure can Newsweek assert with any seriousness that the past year has seen David Ellenson rise from #8 to #5? Or Uri Herscher drop from #6 to #9? And yet, Newsweek prints all these changes in parentheses next to each ranking, so that we can follow them like baseball statistics.

Then, in typical Jew-face, Newsweek loves to tout its panel of judges as its "machers" (it's funny 'cause it's Yiddish?) - a Sony Pictures executive, a NewsCorp executive, and finally at least one panelist who knows something about the Jewish community, JewishTVNetwork.com's Jay Sanderson. If Newsweek were trying to be taken seriously, it would assemble a panel that at least gave the impression of knowing what's going on in the broad swath of the Jewish community. Maybe it could assemble editors of the three most influential Jewish news publications - Forward, JTA and the New York Jewish Week. Or it could take any number of alternative approaches that at least suggest it cares about engaging in a meaningful analysis; unfortunately, it doesn't.

And in case any of us were left wondering if this still should be taken as a joke, and if so who's the butt of it, Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller let us all in on it in her introduction to the list's second version, when she wrote:

The fallout from last year was impressive. Rabbis who were on the list, having memorized their ranking and, in some cases, issued press releases, proceeded to pretend they didn't care.

Miller's holding up these rabbis for ridicule -- when none of them asked her to make the list in the first place, and yet many of them could have their careers noticeably altered by their ranking in this national magazine - is appaling.

I'll be the first one to expose rabbinic wrongdoing and to shine light on the underbelly of the Jewish community. I've fought for journalists to do real work to expose the real concerns in this community, and never to ignore the warts. But what Newsweek's doing here isn't journalism. This is Newsweek picking on a bunch of little people who don't get many chances at the national spotlight - a bunch of men and women who put in their 4 years of seminary with at least the hope of effecting something positive with their lives, and earn relatively very little to do it. This is Newsweek refusing to do the legwork of real journalism focusing on the Jewish community, and instead creating yet another "listicle" that can do nothing but entertain.

This is Newsweek throwing pennies on the floor and ordering, "dance, Jews, dance."

Ours is a small community; less than 2% of Americans describe themselves as Jews, and only half of those have a rabbi. But rabbis are, on the whole, trying to plug along and do something real with their lives. Most aren't begging to get noticed, or hoping to ever grace the national stage. They just want to do their jobs. And now -- because one year they're #33 and the next year they're gone (as happened to Marc Schneier, who's engaged in a constant battle of egos with his father, Arthur, who's made the list every year)*, or when they go up for their next job serving 600 Jewish families and find they don't get it because the other candidate made Newsweek's list, or when their ranking drops and that's just enough leverage for the angry faction on their board to get rid of them - Newsweek has done all of them a disservice by playing a game with their careers in front of the entire country.

It's unfair and wrong, and a transparent effort to make Newsweek sell a bunch of issues on the backs of those same rabbis it mocks, with a list it openly acknowledges is meaningless.

*CORRECTION: As commenter Tzvee points out, I erroneously referred to Marc Schneier as having hosted the pope, when it was his father, Arthur, who'd hosted Benedict XVI. Which brings up yet another great example of how absurd this list is: Arthur Schneier's ranking dropped, from #28 to #36, in the year he became the first American rabbi to ever host a pope. Rabbinic insiders were referring to Arthur Schneier as "the chief rabbi of America" after he scored that, but apparently Newsweek didn't get the memo about it being a big deal.