An American in Parliament
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An American in Parliament

Rabbi Dov Lipman talks about his first months in the Knesset

One of the surprising new stars of Israel’s Knesset will be in Teaneck this weekend.

Rabbi Dov Lipman was elected in January as part of the new Yesh Atid party, which plays a crucial role in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Lipman, 42, is the first American immigrant to serve in the Knesset since Rabbi Meir Kahane was elected in 1984. But whereas Kahane’s platform called for making Israel into a theocracy, Lipman is an Orthodox rabbi – and not the only one – in a party that is popular in large measure for its stance in favor of drafting yeshivah students.

It is a stance that has come under harsh criticism from the charedi world – including from the head of the yeshivah that ordained him, Ner Israel in Baltimore.

And it has led to Lipman learning to give as good as he gets in the famously contentious Knesset.

In one exchange before Rosh Hashanah that is posted on his YouTube channel, Yakov Litzman of the charedi United Torah Judaism party berates Lipman on the week before Rosh Hashanah for his efforts to draft yeshivah students. “I don’t forgive you. There is no atonement,” he screams.

Lipman responds without raising his voice, quoting at length from Maimonides that “a person who is asked for forgiveness should forgive,” and adding that Israel should know that Litzman’s way is not the way of the Torah.

Lipman says that the question of language and the “culture where people can really go at it at each other” initially gave him pause when he considered his Knesset run. After half a year, he feels he has learned the art of parliamentary pugnaciousness “pretty well. When there’s an issue that has to be said, I feel totally comfortable saying it. In terms of Hebrew, I have a long way to go, but with the help of people around me and particularly my staff, I’ve made progress. People understand that I moved here only nine years ago.”

Lipman can expect the attacks from the charedim to continue. With the Knesset soon to begin its Fall/Winter (post-Tishrei) session, Lipman said that he and his party will start tackling issues of religion and state. His personal concerns: conversion and “the agunah issue, women who aren’t allowed to remarry.”

Regarding conversion, Lipman’s top priority is helping the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who have Jewish ancestry but not a Jewish mother.

“I was in the former Soviet Union in the early ’90s, helping to prepare Russians to make aliyah,” he said. “It’s not acceptable that these people who were persecuted in Russia as Jews are now religiously not accepted in Israel. There’s a tremendous amount of leeway even in Orthodox law to enable them to convert.”

Lipman has been working with the deputy minister of religion to propose “reaching out proactively” to the non-Jewish Russians “and trying to inspire them to convert. It’s a question of a policy change, where we don’t demand from them the same thing we demand to convert a non-Jew who comes from a completely non-Jewish background.”

The Israeli rabbinate has demanded that candidates adhere to an Orthodox way of life in order to be allowed to convert.

On the issue of agunah, “the most obvious is to require a prenuptial agreement for every religious marriage that puts crushing economic sanctions on the husband” if he doesn’t grant his wife a religious divorce. That would solve the problem going forward, he said, but “we also have to create a solution for those who are stuck now.

“Change happens slowly,” Lipman continued. “In my first meeting with Yair Lapid” – the founder of the Yesh Atid party – “he said that in America the third rail of politics is Social Security; in Israel it’s religion and state. We’re not afraid to touch it. We’re not afraid to try and address these issues. We’re the first government which has a real commitment to try and solve the problem.

“Step by step, we’ll do what’s necessary.”

Already, he said, Yesh Atid has had success, including the initial approval of the law drafting charedim (the Knesset must approve a bill three times for it to become law) and the addition of women to the committee that chooses religious judges.

Lipman said the draft law “is very incremental by nature. It’s not saying that all of a sudden the entire charedi world has to change. The biggest change is that close to 30,000″ – charedim who never served in the army – “will be able to go to work. It’s basically an amnesty. That shift will be big,” he said.

Religion and state is not Yesh Atid’s only concern, or Lipman’s. He plans on moving forward on immigrant issues and putting the party’s environment platform into legislation.

In a bit of non-legislative environmental action, Lipman established a “Meatless Monday” coalition in the Knesset. The goal is to promote a reduction of meat consumption to help the environment; he noted that meat production is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Lipman said the biggest surprise of his new political life came in getting to know members of Knesset with whom he differs ideologically.

“You see they really believe that the way they’re taking the issue is the best thing for Israel and for the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s very important to recognize that. They’re caring people. They really mean well. You can find many joint projects where you can work together, and where you disagree you can do so in a respectful way. That was something that was eye-opening for me.”

Lipman also has been awed by the opportunity to work with Israel’s heroes.

“We had a special about Entebbe,” he said. “Sitting in the room was obviously the prime minister, who spoke about his brother.” Yoni Natanyahu, Benjamin’s older brother, was killed during the rescue operation. Also there were “Shaul Mofaz, who took over some level of command after Yoni was killed, and Omer Bar-Lev” – a Knesset member from the Labor party – “who was the last soldier on the ground. That’s one story.

“If you add up all the people in the Knesset, there are so many who played a role in history. It’s been fantastic to first serve with them, and then have interactions with them as people.”

Lipman has been taking part in the Knesset’s first ever weekly Torah study class, organized by fellow Yesh Atid members Shai Piron and Ruth Calderon.

“It’s a thrill to sit around the table with members of Knesset from different backgrounds,” he said. “Each week someone chooses a different topic, related to leadership. I usually choose a story from the Talmud. One I did was where Rabbi Meir prayed that his enemies should die, and his wife Bruria pointed out that that wasn’t the right thing to do, that he should pray that they should change their ways. We discussed the way we should approach enemies, and the role of women in the Talmud. A wide range of parties are represented; even the more secular people come.”

Lipman loves being in the Knesset. “On a daily basis you can make a difference in people’s lives, and make a positive change in the direction of the country. It’s an honor and a privilege and I’m certainly up for it for more than just another few years.”

Lipman is scheduled to speak on Friday at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and the Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck; on Shabbat at Teaneck congregations B’nai Yeshurun, Rinat Yisrael, and Netivot Shalom; on Saturday night for an Israeli group at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; and Monday at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. His other local appearances include a talk at Yeshiva University on Tuesday night. Formally, he is accompanying Lapid, who is finance minister, and is visiting the United States for meetings with the International Monetary Fund.

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