Rabbi Sharon Brous named top U.S. rabbi

Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, a nine-year-old independent congregation in Los Angeles, was named America’s Top Rabbi for 2013 by The Daily Beast.

Brous has been on the list of America’s 50 Top Rabbis , previously published by the now-defunct Newsweek, every year since 2008; in 2012 she became the first female rabbi to break into the top 10. Brous is the first woman rabbi to top the list and, at 39, is also the youngest to hold the top spot. Calling her a “magnet” for younger, unaffiliated Jews, the Daily Beast said: “Brous shows that reaching this coveted cohort doesn’t mean skimping on substance.”

Reached by phone soon after the list was released on Thursday, March 21, Brous deflected attention from herself, saying that this list illustrates why she is optimistic about the Jewish future: “I see a number of people on the list, in this iteration, who are fiercely imaginative and willing to take risks to engage Jews deeply and meaningfully — people who are creating new models and reinvigorating old ones.

“So much of the time we worry about the declining trend, but there is also a feverish return to Jewish engagement.  There is a lot of great work being done around the country – in big institutions and scrappy start-ups – to counter the disengagement, to bring boldness and creativity into our community’s conversation.”

The list is now in its seventh year, and most of the rabbis included among the top 10 this year occupied similarly high-ranking positions last year.

Only two rabbis moved up from lower on the list to the top 10 for the first time this year: Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (No. 9), who leads the Rabbinical Assembly, a national umbrella group for Conservative rabbis, and Rabbi Avi Weiss (No. 10), a long-time pulpit rabbi who founded two seminaries associated with his “Open Orthodoxy movement,” including Yeshivat Maharat, which is set to ordain its first class of female Orthodox spiritual leaders later this year.

The list also has been a target of criticism, as described in a recent cover story in The Jewish Journal. It has also sparked more such lists, including one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” released earlier this week by The Forward.

“Of course none of these lists are scientific,” Brous said.  “But this one, in some ways, has the power to give broad, public recognition to the work of some interesting efforts that are less mainstream, less institutional, less well-funded, and yet still helping to inspire great change in the community.  For all the criticism, the list shines a light on some of these more alternative voices – many dedicated to spiritual revitalization, to human rights, equality and justice; many run by women – and acknowledges that they are having a reverberative, if not direct, effect on the broader community.  That, I believe, is a good thing for our community.”

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and, before that, a co-creator of the list, spoke of it this week at  the Jewish Funders Network’s annual conference in Beverly Hills. “The first year that the Newsweek rabbis list came out, the number one complaint was there were too many rabbis from Los Angeles on the list,” he said. “But we have some of the greatest rabbis in America in this city.”

Sanderson originated the list in 2007 with Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president at Time Warner, and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Author Abigail Pogrebin, a former producer on 60 Minutes, wrote the list in 2011 and 2012; Gabrielle Birkner formerly of The Forward, wrote this year’s list.

Angelenos are represented in significant numbers on the 2013 list. Making their seventh straight appearances on the list are Rabbi David Wolpe (No. 3) of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Robert Wexler (No. 7), president of American Jewish University, and Rabbi Naomi Levy (No. 28), founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva, an independent congregation.

Two other L.A.-based  rabbis who are perennially included on the list, Simon Wiesenthal Center Dean and Founder Rabbi Marvin Hier and Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, were listed jointly this year (No. 19). This year marked the first time that Hier, named the country’s most influential rabbi in 2007 and 2008, did not appear in the top 10.

Rabbi Steven Leder (No. 12), senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, made his fourth straight appearance on the list. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (No. 38), a professor at American Jewish University, was returned to the list for the first time since 2010.

The list included a handful of new faces, including Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon (No. 41), an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood, N.J., who helped organize an anti-Internet rally at a baseball stadium in New York last year, and Rabbi Menachem Creditor (No. 49), a Conservative rabbi from Berkeley, Calif., who has actively fought to push for tighter regulations on guns. For the first time this year, The Daily Beast published a list of 10 “Rabbis to Watch” along with the original list.

In a poignant selection, Rabbi Shaul Praver, who leads the Conservative Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, Conn., was named number 50 on the 2013 list. The list-makers cited his efforts to console his city and the country in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of last year, which claimed the life of one of his congregants, 6-year-old Noah Pozner.