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Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, a social-justice advocate who sits on US President Barack Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has been ranked No. 1 on "America's 50 hottest rabbis list" by Newsweek.
The list of America's most influential rabbis is compiled by three Jewish media moguls - Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton, News Corp. executive vice president Gary Ginsberg and Jewish Television Network CEO Jay Sanderson.
For the third year in a row, the three ranked the rabbis based on criteria such as their proximity to powerful people and opinion leaders, visibility in national media, congregation size and good works.
For the first time, the three media tycoons also compiled a list of the 25 Most Vibrant Congregations. There is a diverse mixture of Jewish houses of worship, from the modern Orthodox B'nai Jeshrun in Manhattan to the Reform Beit Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to nondenominational congregations such as Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC, and Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
Congregations were chosen based on social and community engagement, membership growth, outreach to young people, diversity and innovation of programs, dynamism of religious services, and the rabbi's success.
American sociologists of religion have written extensively over the past four decades on how religious expression has become more individualized and custom-tailored to the personal and family needs of congregants. In their 2000 book The Jew Within, Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen showed through extensive interviews that construction of Jewish meaning in America is personal and private and that communal loyalties and norms no longer shape Jewish identity as they did several decades ago.
This conclusion seems to be reflected in the criteria chosen by the three media moguls, as they emphasize the congregations' ability to connect with their congregants. Also, while Orthodoxy is the most steadily growing denomination, Orthodox congregations chosen in the Newsweek list are among the most "un-Orthodox" in America and are better able to answer the need for spiritual individualism so prevalent in America.
Rabbis appearing for the first time on the Newsweek list are: Daniel Brenner, the new executive director of Birthright NEXT; Mark Golub, the CEO of Shalom Television; Ed Feinstein of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom; Elie Kaunfer, founder of Mechon Hadar and Kehilat Hadar; Jill Jacobs, head of Jewish Funds for Justice; and Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC of Manhattan.
Last year's winner, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, was ranked No. 2, while Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, who called the Bernard Madoff scandal "an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy," was ranked No. 3.