Running toward Zionism

Running toward Zionism

Dov Lipman talks about making aliyah, fighting extremism, empowering himself

Rabbi Dov Lipman is the first American-born Israeli to be voted into the Knesset in 30 years.
Rabbi Dov Lipman is the first American-born Israeli to be voted into the Knesset in 30 years.

There are many reasons to move to Israel, Rabbi Dov Lipman says; he’s touring the United States, the land of his birth, to enumerate them.

Last Monday, he was at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck to expand on them, in a talk co-sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that helps North American Jews move to Israel.

Along with the more commonly known reasons — the overwhelming desire to live in the Jewish homeland, to be part of Jewish history, to experience firsthand the ingathering of the exiles, to be part of a new, exciting, intellectually challenging high-tech-driven economy — are other, more surprising ones, reasons that Rabbi Lipman did not expect and that moved him deeply nonetheless.

Making aliyah allowed Rabbi Lipman, 45, who became the first American-born Israeli to be voted into the Knesset in 30 years, a chance to make a very real difference in the world he lives in, and it allows him the opportunity to fight extremism, a curse that is haunting our world, both in Israel and here.

“There were two episodes that really jarred me,” Rabbi Lipman said in a phone interview before his talk. In July of 2004, he and his family moved to Bet Shemesh, a town that was in the news a great deal a few years later as some extremist charedim expressed their displeasure with the modern Orthodox community, which includes Rabbi Lipman.

“There were three police cars on our corner,” he recalled. “There wasn’t much crime there, so I assumed that they were there because of terrorism.” He assumed an attack. “So I asked the police officers what was going on, and they said ‘Run!’ But before I could run, there was a hailstorm of rocks.” One of them hit him in the leg; he wasn’t seriously hurt but he was deeply unnerved. “I held onto one of the rocks; it’s on my desk at home now,” he said. They had been thrown by extremist Jews, protesting the existence of his community. (For context, Rabbi Lipman was educated in Orthodox day schools and was ordained by the Agudath-Israel-affiliated Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, hardly a hotbed of liberalism. His status as an Orthodox Jew is unquestionable.)

Years later, in 2011, “I saw signs saying, ‘It is forbidden for women to walk on the street dressed in immodest clothing.’” Those signs are paper glued to walls, flimsy but hard to remove. The clothing to which they were referring was typical modern Orthodox women’s dress, which covers much of the body but not all of it, and can be brightly colored. The women to whom they were referring were schoolgirls. “I knew that they had been posted by a small group of extremists,” Rabbi Lipman said. “I wasn’t very political then, but I bought spray paint and I spray- painted all over the signs.

“It was my breakthrough moment. I realized that I could do things here. It was very empowering.”

But a few days later, new signs, pasted over the old ones, were up, with the same message. “We had a team that developed to spray-paint over them,” he said. For a while, the team would cover over the objectionable signs, they’d be reposted, resprayed, reposted, resprayed. “It was getting expensive, buying all that spray paint,” Rabbi Lipman said. It also was getting dispiriting.

Then he had a brainstorm.

“We spray painted over the last words, so now the signs read ‘It is forbidden for women to walk on the streets dressed.’

“And then an amazing thing happened. It stopped. The signs stopped, and they didn’t come back.

“For me, it was a deep moment. I realized that we were new immigrants, and my Hebrew wasn’t so good yet, but we realized that we didn’t have to be bullied. That we could fight back.

Rabbi Dov Lipman greets IDF troops on the front lines.
Rabbi Dov Lipman greets IDF troops on the front lines.

“It got worse, so we organized a huge rally. Buses came from Kiryat Shimona in the north, and from Eilat in the south, and government ministers came, and it was on television. We stood up against extremists, and I was told, ‘Dov, that was the knock-out punch.’ It really did it.

“For me, that was the moment when I took another step. Starting with my broken Hebrew, and not fully knowing the culture, and not being connected, I was able to do something, to push back.

“And then I took the next step, and entered politics.”

Rabbi Lipman was in the Knesset, a member of the Yesh Atid party, from 2013 to 2015. He now chairs his party’s committee on Anglo and diaspora affairs, and is working hard on defusing the issue that continues to engage him, the question of extremism, specifically in the charedi world. “I started analyzing it, trying to see where it comes from, both in Israel and in America,” he said. “They are isolated; they don’t go into the army and they don’t go into the workforce.”

“It’s easy for them to demonize the outside world if they don’t know it. That’s what they were taught to do. So I decided that my number one focus was to get the charedim to work, to help them to get out of poverty, and to get them into the larger world.

“And it’s really happening! Thank God, we are opening the floodgates. We have programs all over the country. And amazing things are happening.”

Some programs are government funded, Rabbi Lipman said, and some initiatives come from private industry. “I worked hard convincing CEOs to hire charedim.” Sometimes he succeeded. “‘One CEO told me a story about one of the charedim he hired, who got married and invited everyone at work to come to the wedding. There were no demands about how they should dress — just an invitation.”

And the new open-mindedness doesn’t go in just one direction, he stressed. “On the flip side, a secular guy in one of those companies asked two charedim to be his witnesses under the chuppah.

“I am in no way suggesting that we have reached utopia — but we are on the right path,” Rabbi Lipman said.

When he encourages charedim to enter the workforce, he uses Jewish texts to make his point. “I always quote the sources, to show that Jewish tradition always has been to work,” he said. “The idea of not going to work is new.

“Another breakthrough moment for me was when I was on the radio, on the main charedi station, and the host asked me how I, as a rabbi, could say that charedim should leave kollel and go to work.

“I read a text from the Rambam, Maimonides. It said that the person who chooses to study Torah and forces other people to support him — that person disgraces God, brings shame to the Torah, and loses his portion in the world to come.

“There was a pause, and then he says to me, ‘You are quoting Maimonides, from a thousand years ago. How is that relevant today?’

“It was an amazing moment. I said to myself that I would quote sources all the time. I would stand at the Knesset podium and I would read those texts. I would quote those sources. I know that the politicians weren’t listening — but the people were.”

Rabbi Lipman quoted the politician Yair Lapid, who chairs Yesh Atid. “He always tells us that change does not happen day to day. Leadership is the ability to think about 50 years from now.”

It’s vitally important both for the charedim and for the country to integrate the charedi community into the rest of society, at least to some extent. “In Israel, families in the charedi community — and I say thank God for this — are having an average of seven children. Everyone else is having three. So economically it is untenable.”

On the other hand, the charedim are uniquely able to contribute to Israel life. “When you are studying Talmud for years, you know how to use your mind,” he said. “They think in creative and analytic ways. A lot of new things will happen in high-tech because of the charedi influence.”

As a member of the Knesset, Rabbi Lipman has learned that “we live in a time when we can determine our own destiny.” It’s particularly striking to be an American immigrant, because “we have a special voice that we bring to Israel,” he said. “Yes, everything is polarized now, but we grew up in a place of tolerance and coexistence, in a country that accepted us. We didn’t face religious/secular conflicts, or Ashkenazi/Sephardi conflicts, we didn’t have biases against new immigrants. And it’s natural for us to be comfortable with non-Jews, so we’re okay with Israeli Arabs, in a way that other Israelis are not comfortable.

“Israelis tell me all the time that it’s refreshing.”

And even more tellingly, “We come with a certain freshness in terms of Zionism,” Rabbi Lipman said. “We’re not running away from anything. We’re running toward something. That brings a certain passion. When you’re running away from something, you don’t necessarily dive in and get involved when you get there.

“We have a passion to make Israel even better than it is.”

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