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I didn’t make the ‘Top Rabbis’ list…again

Not that it matters, but maybe I should lose weight, get a perm, or undergo a 'sects-change'

Newsweek’s most recent list of the top fifty rabbis in America was published on March 21, and I wasn’t on it….again! The Jewish Daily Forward published its list of the thirty-six most inspiring rabbis in America a little over a week ago, and my name didn’t float to the top of the fame pool. Every year the Forward also publishes its picks for the fifty most influential Jews in America – the Forward Fifty – and try as I may, I cannot ever get included among the regal rabbonim on that list either.

What am I doing wrong, or more to the point, what are my celebrity colleagues doing right? How can I, an attention starved, ego-driven, middle aged clergyperson, get the Hollywood-style celeb status I crave while simultaneously projecting an enduring image of the self-effacing humility I lack?

Do I need to lose weight, get a perm, or wear funkier clothing?

Maybe my congregation needs a slicker, sexier name to gain more attention. Jewish laws concerning which blessings to say before we eat a meal distinguish between the main food (ikar in Hebrew), “that which is the main thing,” and the side dish (taphel in Hebrew), “that which is superfluous.” The hottest synagogue in L.A. – for some journalists, in the universe – has already snatched up the name IKAR. So how about I rename mine TAPHEL, the coldest shul in Albany, New York? That would actually make sense since we live in the snow belt, and with a budget like ours (and like that of nearly every other shul in the 21st century) we never know if we’ll be able to pay our heating bills.

When I think about this more carefully, I realize that a name change won’t do it. How about a “sects-change”, since as we all know, narrow denominational labels and loyalties are so February 2013. I would likely get more people to take me and my congregation seriously if I repositioned us as “indereconservaformodoxaredi”: in other words, a shul that is all things to all people, and therefore, nothing to anyone. Alternatively, I could gain some “groyse-gravitas” if I became a rabbi who is all things to all people! I should aspire to become the kind of rabbi described in that anonymous satire about the perfect rabbi that everyone quotes ad nauseam:

The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregational families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

OK, enough sarcasm. In all sincerity, my colleagues who are selected for these “top rabbi” lists have earned their honors. They are a “who’s who” of hard working Jewish clergy who are inspiring to the rest of us precisely because they refuse to cease being inspired by God, by the Jewish people, and by the great wisdom of Torah. They hope relentlessly that they can make the world better, despite living in an often bitter world that sometimes feels relentlessly hopeless. Further, when we consider the shallow, dismissive manner in which Western popular culture often treats rabbis and all clergy, any credit for the sacred work that we do is well deserved. This is especially the case because that work is at times emotionally taxing and thankless.

Nonetheless, rating rabbis’ public and professional status with unscientific, at times popularity driven assessment tools will never entirely sit well with me. God gave all of us egos, and we all want to feel the pride one gets from being thanked and recognized for good work that helps others. But if the goal of rabbis (and all clergy) is primarily to serve God and not ourselves, paying a lot of attention to a few of us for what we all do in relative obscurity seems antithetical to what being a rabbi is about. I am genuinely proud of those rabbis whose dedication has earned them kudos from the Jewish and public presses. Yet I am just as proud of what I and the rest of our rabbinic leadership do daily. The Torah we teach and the relationships we cultivate with people over the course of decades have tremendous impact on their lives and the world, whether or not we are widely recognized. I hope to continue to work l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, whether or not my work ever garners any great recognition.

However, if Newsweek does contact me, my headshots are ready!

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020.