The Top 50 Rabbis, The Resurgence of Reform Ritual


About two months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute presented the findings of its “outreach scan” to Jewish professionals in Morris County, New Jersey. To conduct the “outreach scan,” JOI cold calls and emails, and checks out the websites of, institutions in a particular area. The goal is to determine how welcoming–or unwelcoming–an area’s institutions are to unaffiliated Jews, including the intermarried.

I mention it now because JOI’s executive director, our friend, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, was recently named one of the top 50 rabbis in America by a very unscientific three-man poll published in Newsweek. He ranked 27th, putting him behind such famous rabbis as Harold Kushner and Shmuley Boteach but ahead of such luminaries as Elliot Dorff and Avi Weiss. Rabbis have already started scoffing at the list, but I’m guessing it will draw more attention to the work of many of these rabbis than they’ve ever had before. A few, like Kushner, Boteach and Michael Lerner, already have a well-established presence in the secular non-Jewish world, but many others are names known only to Jewish community insiders. And while the selection process was bizarre (since when do three Hollywood media barons know so much about rabbis?) and the ranking is biased towards the West Coast, all the names that should be on a list like this are on there.

In any case, Olitzky’s presence on the list is not only testament to the valuable work that JOI does, but it also validates the importance that outreach to the intermarried and unaffiliated has assumed in the Jewish community. That’s a welcome development.

Sticking with the rabbi theme, at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta earlier this month, one of the four all-day study sessions focused on increasing ritual observance among Reform Jews. The session, led by Rabbi Richard Levy, the director of the School of Rabinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus, focused specifically on mikveh (ritual bath), mezuzahs and the laws of kashrut. The mostly female attendees spoke a lot about mikveh, which has seen an explosion of use among non-Orthodox women (and to some extent, non-Orthdox men) in recent years for uses beyond the ritual monthly immersion following menstruation. The practice of kashrut has also seen more widespread use, often tinged with more progressive values, like a focus on organic and “fair trade” ingredients. These developments show that people can live an observant, ritually rich life within a movement that is very welcoming to the intermarried. Reform Judaism is not simply a “watered down” version of Judaism that is defined primarily by its lack of standards; it can be a proactive, progressive movement full of activities that carry great meaning to its adherents.

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