A summer of tears and unity

A summer of tears and unity

Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman speaks in Bergenfield

This year, Rabbi Dov Lipman went into Tisha B’Av knowing that tears would flow.

It was about 10 years ago that Rabbi Lipman, a rabbi trained at the charedi Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, left his job as principal of a boys’ yeshiva in Silver Spring, Maryland, to move to Israel with his family. A year and a half ago, he was elected to the Knesset with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, with a personal goal of fostering Jewish unity in Israel, in part by integrating charedim into the workforce and army.

He did so in the belief that the prophesized redemption was at hand. Israel was flourishing. The exiles were gathering from the four corners of the earth. If there was one thing lacking, it was unity – the ability of Jews from disparate backgrounds to learn to coexist. And that, he felt, was a manageable goal to work toward.

In the face of evident miracles and the rebirth of Israel, “finding some way to cry on Tisha B’Av – which is ultimately what we are supposed to do – came at great difficulty,” he said.

Rabbi Dov Lipman

This year, though, “I can’t stop crying,” he said on Sunday night, the night before Tisha B’Av, at the Bais Medrash of Bergenfield.

It has been an emotional summer for many. But Rabbi Lipman’s job as a back-bench parliamentarian during wartime – one who does not take part in the cabinet discussions concerning the course of the war – puts him on the emotional front line. Normal Knesset work was put aside. Rabbi Lipman and his colleagues filled their schedules with visits to soldiers poised to enter Gaza and recuperating at hospitals; with attendance at funerals, and by paying shiva calls to bereaved families.

When, last weekend, he related his summer experiences to his wife, Dina, who has been working at a Jewish camp in the Poconos all summer, “I couldn’t stop crying.”

And yet, he said, “there are little bits of light.”

In particular, he finds them in the resilience shown by Israelis even as they mourn their sons, and by the Jewish people’s capacity for unity, which have been demonstrated repeatedly this summer.

He speaks of “amazing things” that he saw during this terrible summer.

“First we suffered through those 18 days when the boys were missing. It was almost as if God handpicked the families that could carry the country on their backs for all of us.

“They were religious boys, learning in yeshivas outside the Green Line” that separates Israel from the West Bank. “That’s something in Israel that is very politically charged. But without a moment’s hesitation, all that politics fell aside. It was unbelievable to see this in the Knesset.

“There was a sense of unity and a sense of care and love for these boys in a way that unfortunately sometimes takes a tragedy to happen. All Israel was unified in this effort.

“On day two or three, there we were in the Knesset, saying tehillim” – psalms. Members of parties that don’t normally join in religious services in the Knesset were “davening for the well-being of the boys.”

“People tried to understand, who are these parents who are suffering” over the plight of their missing boys – “how do they have such strength?”

Yair Lapid, the chairman of Rabbi Lipman’s Yesh Atid party, owes his political success to his effort to draft charedim; he is condemned by them in the harshest terms as anti-religious.

“I talk to him all the time about theology,” said Rabbi Lipman. “He is a person who does believe in God. Sometimes I feel his faith is stronger than mine – he’s a person who does have a regular connection with God, as he says, in his way.”

It is not a way, however, that involves traditional prayer.

But when the parents of Gilad Shaer asked Mr. Lapid to “do one thing: Pray”, then “Yair went home and he found his grandfather’s siddur and for the first time in six years he went through the davening from beginning to end. He developed a close relationship with the family.”

The unity, he said, culminated with a rally in Tel Aviv featuring the parents of the three boys.

The prospect made Rabbi Lipman nervous. Rabin Square is big, and there was a World Cup match that evening. Would the square be filled?

“It was absolutely full.

“These families, who for a few weeks were lifting up the whole country – all of a sudden the country was lifting them up.”

“I can tell you now that the families already knew the likelihood of their sons being alive wasn’t very high. They had already heard the audiotape. In the tape you do hear gunshots. But there was a chance. They were holding on to that chance.

“The rally was beautiful. It brought religious and secular together. There were a large number of secular singers on stage. I felt the country was united.

“Less than 24 hours later, all of us are plunged into mourning when the bodies are found. Less than 24 hours after that, the funeral. The families decided the boys should be buried together.

“They had to close traffic miles from where the funeral took place. Tens of thousands of people walked, not to be able to see anything, just to be part of saying goodbye to these boys,” he said.

The inspiration continued when he and his Knesset colleagues visited the shiva houses.

“Again these families lifted us up,” he said. They talked about how redemption, “going back to our homeland, is not an easy process.”

“I had this crazy thought: Maybe I’ll go around the Knesset, to all the parties that have Jewish members, and try to learn mishnayot for the boys. In the end we got everyone from Shas and Agudath Yisrael to Meretz and Hadash” – the first two are ultra-Orthodox parties; the latter two are liberal and socialist. Hadash is a non-Zionist, mixed Jewish-Arab party. Rabbi Lipman explained to the Jewish member of Hadash the tradition of studying Mishnah in memory of the deceased. “He said he wanted to do it.”

At the boys’ funeral, Rabbi Lipman couldn’t stop looking at the three bodies wrapped in Israeli flags. He has a son who is 17 years old. “The mirror image of these boys,” he said. “Let this be the worst funeral I ever experience in my life,” he prayed. “Let this be the end.”

“Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end.

“The missiles started coming. Israel was dragged into a conflict we very much didn’t want to have,” he said.

Rabbi Lipman isn’t in the Israeli cabinet, and he doesn’t sit on the Knesset’s defense committee. So he doesn’t get the detailed, classified briefings some of his colleagues get. But he gets some. And he spends a lot of time talking with more knowledgeable colleagues, particularly fellow Yesh Atid member Ya’akov Peri, now Israel’s minister of science, technology, and space, who headed Israel’s Shin Bet security service from 1988 to 1994.

“Before I was in parliament, I thought I knew everything,” Rabbi Lipman told his New Jersey audience. “We have enemies. Let’s go in and fight them.

“Then you start hearing intelligence estimates about how many soldiers will die if you do X, if you do Y, if you do Z. You understand the weight on the people who have to make these decisions,” he said.

As a public official, Rabbi Lipman was able to devote all his time to visiting soldiers and their families.

“It was weeks of experiencing in a first-hand manner what it means to be at war,” he said. “There is no group of young men like the Israeli Defense Force. It’s an incredible thing to witness.”

The day after the ground assault began, he went down south, near the staging area for Gaza. People from Silver Spring had given him $1,000 for the soldiers. What should he do with it? He asked his spokesman, who had been a soldier not long before.

“I’ve got an idea. We’ll bring them ice cream,” came the reply.

“He certainly knows Israel better than I do. So we ordered $1,000 of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and they froze it in a special way and we drove off to the border of Gaza.

“Their eyes just lit up. They started running over to get their little ice cream cups. It just made their day. Every little thing they got from anybody, every single care package, every single letter, lifted their spirits. They realized they’re not alone, there’s a whole nation who cares for them.”

Then came the battles, and the casualties.

“We started visiting hospitals. You get reports – so many wounded in terms of serious, medium, and light. That’s only in terms of the danger to someone’s life. I walked into someone’s hospital room who was hurt light. He had lost his hand.”

Rabbi Lipman thanked the soldier for his sacrifice.

“He said, ‘I appreciate that. I’m thinking about one thing: My brother’s in Gaza. Can you find a way to ask the doctor when they can patch me up so I can go back?’

“That’s what they’re thinking about. There’s a determination and pride to be out fighting regardless of the cost that I never realized before. All they want is to fight the battle of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” he said.

And then came the funerals.

“I’ve been to funerals before,” Rabbi Lipman said. “I’ve never experienced anything like what I saw in the past weeks.

“There was a soldier named Amotz Greenberg who was 45 years old with three children – similar to where I am in life. Amotz did not have to go to Gaza, but he knew that the soldiers he had been fighting with for the last number of years were going.

“At the funeral, Amotz’s 12-year-old son spoke. He said, ‘Abba, I always thought that you were Superman, but now I know that you are Superman.’

“And he said, ‘Abba, you always taught me that it’s worth the life of one soldier to protect a neighborhood of Jewish children, but why did it have to be you?’

“His wife passed out three times during the funeral. You just saw lives destroyed.

“I then went to the funeral of Avi Greentzweig. Avi has a twin sister. They were the only children. She said that without being told, she knew the moment that he was killed. She said that with the same sadness she felt then, ‘I know right now you’re completely fine and that you’re close to God.’ This was a secular young girl talking.

“The amazing thing about these funerals is you saw the same thing as for the three boys, the same unity, the same cross-section of everyone coming to say farewell and say thank you,” he said.

As the only American immigrant in the Knesset, Rabbi Lipman was very involved in the funerals of the two American immigrants, Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg, who died fighting in Gaza.

He was asked to help ensure that people would come to the funeral of Mr. Carmeli, whose family lived in Texas. “I put out a call from the Knesset podium,” Rabbi Lipman said.

The real influencers, though were the Maccabi Haifa soccer team. On learning that Mr. Carmeli had been a fan, they too put out a call: If you’re a fan of Maccabi Haifa, come to Sean’s funeral.

“Twenty thousand people came at eleven o’clock at night to the cemetery in Haifa for Sean’s funeral,” Rabbi Lipman said.

“They literally had to hold Sean’s parents back from going into the grave. They were physically holding them back because as parents that’s where they wanted to be.

“Sean had a girlfriend. They had plans for their life. She was literally banging on the casket and screaming ‘Sean, wake up! Sean, wake up!’ I’ve never in my life seen that degree of sadness and pain and suffering and anguish. As this is happening, there is complete silence. From 20,000 people,” he said.

Rabbi Lipman was standing next to the Maccabi coach and the team’s two star players. “They were crying and answering Kaddish.”

The next day he got the call about Max Steinberg’s funeral.

“I was told this case was completely different. Sean’s family originated in Israel. Max Steinberg’s family is from California and has no connection to Israel, practically no connection to Judaism. The family had no idea what’s happening here.

“I spoke to Max’s father the night before, to explain what would be happening.

“There we are on Har Herzl” – the site of Israel’s military cemetery at the edge of Jerusalem – “in the middle of the afternoon. Max’s family: His mother, father, brother, and sister – along with 35,000 people. Apparently on the light rail going to Har Herzl people were singing Am Yisrael Chai and Ani Ma’amin.

“Max’s story is quite remarkable. His was a family that did not go to shul on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, that had or didn’t have a Passover seder depending on the year.

“His brother saw a sign for a Birthright trip. He just wanted a free trip to the Middle East and to see a new country. They went, Max together with his brother and his sister.

“While they were on Birthright, the first thing Max wrote about was the Israeli people. He just loved them. They were ‘people who show love and care and interest.’

“They brought the Birthright trip to Har Herzl. He saw the grave of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from Philadelphia. Something inside of him pulled him. He told his brother, ‘I’m coming back and joining the IDF.’ He left his college, left his family, and not knowing Hebrew, came to Israel. He said he wanted to be in Golani” – the army’s elite unit. “He insisted. He pushed. His friends told me he did not know Hebrew; the only Hebrew he knew was the commands, what he needed for the army.

“He talked about how life is not worth living if you’re not living for other people and for something greater than yourself. In order to be part of that much bigger something, he said, ‘I have to be in Israel, because that’s the Jewish homeland, and I have to fight for Israel, because that’s part of being part of the Jewish nation.’

“In his last phone call to his parents, he said, ‘We’re going into Gaza. I’m not worried for myself; I’m worried for you.'”

That concern for others, for the greater good, is something that Rabbi Lipman found among the mourning parents.

“All the families were able to differentiate between their personal tragedy and the national purpose. All the families said, keep fighting.

“I asked Eyal Yifrach’s father” – Eyal was one of the kidnapped and murdered boys – “what should we be doing to root out terror and end this? He said: End this? This is our lot. This is part of our lot in being here. There’s no other place I want to be.

“I actually saw an exchange, where somebody went up to the grandmother of a soldier who was killed and said ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’

“‘Sorry?’ she replied? ‘I’m sad, but I’m not sorry. My grandson fulfilled a mission for the Jewish people.'”

Rabbi Lipman said that in Israel now, “There’s no defeatist attitude, no sense of gloom or doom. We don’t know how but somehow we’ll get through everything. We’ll find our way. That’s the greater comfort.”

Coming to America
Rabbi Lipman’s current visit to America was long planned. For a month during the scheduled Knesset summer recess he would visit family, while his wife worked at a Jewish camp in Pennsylvania.

But given the events of the summer, “It was very difficult to get on the airplane. The expression ‘My heart is in the East and I’m stuck [in the West’ has never meant more to me,” he said.

His wife urged him to say in Israel: “That’s where you belong, where you can be a comfort to the families and soldiers.”

Yet in the end, it was his experience at the funerals of Israel’s young soldiers that convinced him that it was particularly important to spend the time with his family – particularly taking his 17-year-old son to baseball games.

Soon, the son will enter the Israeli army. “He wants to be a Navy SEAL. We’re very proud of him, but it’s not a decision that doesn’t include fears and unknowns,” he said.

In light of the situation, however, Rabbi Lipman turned a personal trip into one with media appearances – and with plans to represent Israel at a memorial service for Max Steinberg in Los Angeles later this month.

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