Newsweek Top Rabbi’s List — Feh

If Daily Beast/Newsweek launched a Top Jewish Editors List, my friend Ami Eden would surely be way up there.   But the editor-in-chief of JTA is just a bit off in his comments on the annual Top Rabbis List that Daily Beast puts out.

In his blog post today on that list, he refers  to the March 15 Jewish Journal cover story, “Is the rabbis list legit?,” and summarizes the flaws our writer Danielle Berrin uncovered in the execution and, as many critics said, the very idea of such a list.

But Eden then offers an unwarranted and gratuitous knock against Berrin.

“All valid points,” he writes of the concerns Berrin’s sources raised.  “But… I think we’re losing sight of the bigger picture — Tina Brown publishes an annual top rabbis list. How cool is that? (If Berrin had thought of it, the L.A. Jewish Journal would be doing it every year!).”

Two things: As Berrin clearly established, this is not in any convincing way “Tina Brown’s” list or Newsweek’s — it is the creation of people outside those organizations, who then planted it at Newsweek (which was taken over by Brown’s Daily Beast).  Newsweek lent the list its brand and journalistic credibility, without doing any actual vetting.  In other words, it saw a chance for attention and traffic without doing the actual work.

List creator Jay Sanderson, now President of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, put it this way to Berrin: “When I see ads that say, ‘Newsweek’s number whatever rabbi,’ it makes me laugh. It makes me feel like, ‘I guess I’m Newsweek,’ because Newsweek didn’t vet this list.”

As utterly exciting as the prospect may seem to Tina Brown fans (I’m more of an Arianna guy myself), I suspect her entire thought process behind posting the list was, “Sure, traffic, whatever.”

Second point, which is really the thrust of this blog post: Eden’s swipe at Danielle Berrin. “(If Berrin had thought of it, the L.A. Jewish Journal would be doing it every year!)”

I’m not sure why Am would demean a serious piece of journalism as sour grapes, but he is simply wrong on the facts.

The fact is, when Sanderson left his position as CEO of Jewish Television Network, where he created the Top Rabbis List, he offered it to the Jewish Journal.  I thought about it for two seconds and said we’re not interested.   As much as I like traffic and buzz, I really do believe the list ultimately demeans the rabbinate and hurts rabbis.   I didn’t see a way to do it that was credible.

(As for Danielle Berrin’s ideas, she has no problem coming up with several great ones each week. )

The Forward, under another Top Jewish Editor Jane Eisner, has gotten closer with its new 36 Most Inspiring Rabbis, which it just released this week.  That list is compiled from nominations by readers.  The stories are well-researched and well-written, and worth your time.

Even then, “Most Inspiring?”  If there’s a Jew who doesn’t believe his or her rabbi is inspiring, it’s time for another rabbi. If you don’t believe your rabbi is the number 1 for you, keep looking.

The Jewish Journal does do an annual list, but it’s not ranking rabbis.  Each December we compile The Mensch List,  ten unheralded people in our community who give tirelessly, creatively and often thanklessly of themselves to improve the lives of others.   This year the Los Angeles City Council honored our “Mensch List” for its service to the city. We even got a cool plaque, at taxpayer expense.

If only Tina Brown had thought of that.

You can read Danielle Berrin's full investigation into the Newsweek Top Rabbis List here.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.