Know Comment: The most interesting Jews of 5778

Profound, provocative and intellectually significant persons to follow over the coming year.

Facebook Chief Operating Office Sheryl Sandberg (photo credit: REUTERS)
Facebook Chief Operating Office Sheryl Sandberg
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s 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 mainly a potpourri of the wealthy, powerful, organizationally well-positioned and pop-culture famous.
Here I offer a different type of list; a smattering of “interesting” Jews to follow in 5778.
Interesting in my book means profound, provocative and positive; or deeply reflective, substantive and intellectually significant; and making a real contribution to the long-term future of the Jewish people.
Therefore, without any ranking, I encourage you to pay attention to these people over the coming year:
• Boaz Bismuth: The new editor-in-chief of Israel Hayom is wise and wily. He is emphasizing in-depth field reportage – not the cheap, sensationalist hit-and-run attack journalism we have become used to in the Hebrew tabloids. Nor is he afraid of giving expression in the paper to the increasingly traditional “pro-Jewish” sentiments of the Israeli public and to the politically conservative orientation of most Israelis.
• Sheryl Sandberg: Almost everything spoken and written by this brilliant and sensitive CEO of Facebook becomes an instant classic. She has turned her personal bereavement and meteoric career into a string of penetrating self-help and moral teaching manifestos that are well worth reading.
• Dani Dayan: This settler community leader turned Israeli diplomat (he is Israel’s consul-general in New York City) has overcome near-automatic leftwing bias against him to become a universally respected spokesman for Israel. Now if only the Reform and ultra-Orthodox would take a lesson or two from him in humility and consensus- building....
• Doron Almog: He is one of the few ex-generals to build a substantial second career that doesn’t involve hectoring Likud governments from the Left.
Instead, he founded the Aleh Negev rehabilitation center (in memory of his disabled son) and built it into a major institution that is changing the culture of care for thousands of children and adults with complex disabilities.
• Evelyn Gordon: Next to me, she is one of sharpest columnists in the pro-Israel English-speaking world. Formerly a journalist for the Post, her articles in Commentary and other journals on the peace process, constitutional and legal matters, and antisemitism are breathtaking in their penetration and precision.
• Gideon Sa’ar: The Likud comeback kid is biding his time and carefully rebuilding a political base for the day that Benjamin Netanyahu retires or is retired. His new political personality is solidly right and mildly religious – which is crafty, and I hope, genuine.
• Gideon Samuel: He runs an incredible nonprofit called Am Yisrael Echad that runs informal educational programs on Jewish and Zionist identity in more than 120 secular junior and high schools across Israel. (I’m on the board). The organization knows how to find the common denominators in Israeli Jewish society, instead of picking away at differences. It assists each student toward Jewish-Zionist self-discovery in a way that is empowering without being threatening.
• Henry Kissinger: At 94 years old, Dr. Kissinger is as incisive and active as ever, with world leaders knocking on his door for counsel. Many Israelis remember only his pressure on Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin in the years 1973-76. But they should read his 2014 book World Order and his monthly essays in The Wall Street Journal, in which his views on today’s global issues are unstintingly conservative and remarkably in line with Israel’s strategic perspectives. In fact, his sincere concern for Israel is evident.
• Irwin Cotler: The Canadian law professor, human rights leader and former justice minister hardly needs introduction, since his presence on the Jewish and Israel advocacy circuit is omnipotent.
His new Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights should become an important base for pursuing justice and confronting evil.
• Nir Barkat: The mayor of Jerusalem is sagaciously developing the city into a truly radiant international capital city. He is also advancing Arab neighborhoods through greater budgets for education and infrastructure. And it’s working.
The number of eastern Jerusalem students who opted for the Israeli matriculation curriculum jumped by 20% this year; up from 300 to 5,800 students over seven years. Let’s hope that Barkat stays in the job for another term.
• Shlomo Riskin: This brave rabbi has been persecuted by more conservative factions within Orthodoxy for his out-front – and I think, far-sighted – work in conversion, ordination and interfaith dialogue. The Chief Rabbinate even toyed with the idea of ending his term as chief rabbi of Efrat, a city he co-founded. Lately, he has gone out on another limb regarding homosexuality; perhaps a limb too far. But read his autobiography, Listening to God, and then tell me you don’t admire this religiously profound, resourceful and indefatigable man.
• Yehoshua Pfeffer: Rabbi Pfeffer leads intellectual ventures in the haredi world, under the auspices of The Tikvah Fund, toward greater familiarity with the constitutional, communal and cultural underpinnings of Western/modern society.
He advocates for a healthy process of maturation that will simultaneously preserve and improve haredi society – and perhaps offer new pathways of navigating modernity to Israeli society writ large. Read the new online haredi journal he edits called Tzarich Iyun (lit., “Needs Understanding”).
• Yishai Fraenkel: The outgoing vice president of Intel, and incoming director-general of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On behalf of the Council for Higher Education, he has been the leader of all programs for the integration of haredim in Israeli universities – a task that he has accomplished with acumen and aplomb. Let’s hope he can do wonders for the debt-ridden and dusty (and lefty) Hebrew University too.
• Zeev Rotstein: Hadassah-University Medical Center is on the road to financial recovery and renewed medical excellence under the two-year leadership of its tough and trailblazing director, Prof. Zeev Rotstein. The ugly fight between him and a group of pediatric hemato-oncology doctors was a tragedy and a distraction, but he is on track to positively transform the venerable Hadassah megalopolis.
• Ayelet Shaked: The intrepid justice minister was on my list last year, but deserves repeat mention.
She is emerging as one of our canniest politicians and genuine thought leaders, appointing hundreds of judges (many with a conservative orientation), and advancing conservative constitutional legislation that should redress the radical liberal slant of the courts and legal bureaucracy.