Lifestyle & Belief

American rabbi elected to Israeli Knesset with hopes of bridging sectarian divide

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Rabbi Dov Lipman, second from right, attends a demonstration in July 2012, calling for Ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army. (Photo by Matthew Bell.)

The first American-born emigrant elected to the Israeli parliament in a generation is in a unique position to contribute to the defining issue in Israeli politics.

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Dov Lipman, a 41 year-old rabbi from Silver Spring, Md., is probably as surprised as anyone to be a new member of Israel’s Knesset.

“Sharing the burden” is a catchphrase known by just about every Israeli since the national election last month. It refers to the fact that nearly all of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel — tens of thousands of them — are exempt from the military service that is mandatory for most of the rest of the country. They rely heavily on government subsidies and spend long hours in full-time religious study for much of their adulthood.

Many do not enter the workforce and therefore do not pay much in the way of taxes, either.

The situation has caused no small amount of resentment among Israeli voters and they want it to change. So does Rabbi Lipman.

The rabbi’s road to the Knesset ran through the less-then-glamorous Israeli city of Bet Shemesh. In late 2011, Bet Shemesh was a cultural battleground. It was big news when members of the Ultra-Orthodox community harassed and spit on an 8 year-old Jewish girl for not dressing modestly enough.

In Bet Shemesh, Lipman became a public advocate against the extremism and self-imposed isolation of the Ultra-Orthodox community. And for that, he says, he was spat upon, had rocks thrown at him and even received death threats. But he kept it up, calling on the Ultra-Orthodox to do more to integrate with mainstream Israeli society.

“It’s mostly the political leadership of the Ultra-Orthodox community,” Lipman said. “The average Ultra-Orthodox person on the ground is ready for some kind of a change.”

Lipman spoke at a small demonstration in Tel Aviv, where a group of young army veterans in T-shirts and jeans were demanding that the Ultra-Orthodox either join the army or do some kind of national service.

The rabbi stood out in this crowd. He was the only person there whose style of dress marked him as an observant Jew. The black yarmulke on his head and his black pinstriped suit was probably similar to the outfit he wore during his time at yeshiva. Judaism puts an emphasis on learning the Old Testament, or Torah. But Lipman said there needs to be a better balance.

“Listen, I love studying Torah, I dedicated my life to the rabbinate,” he said.

But, he says, he couldn’t imagine studying the Torah day and night for his entire life.

"It’s not a normal thing," he said. “There’s an elite group that I’m sure can do it and the country’s ready to support them and support them well. We’re not talking about going into the study halls and clearing them out and giving them a gun and saying, ‘serve in the army.’ They’re talking about community service within their own communities.”

That message of compromise earned Lipman a spot in a new political party led by one of Israel’s rising stars, Yair Lapid. The former journalist and his Yesh Atid party — Yesh Atid meaning, ‘there is a future’ — made “sharing the burden” a centerpiece of their campaign. And they surprised just about everyone in the recent election by winning the second-highest number of seats in the new parliament.

At the beginning of the month, Lipman took the oath of office. He had to give up his American citizenship, which he said was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do.

“America meant so much to my family, taking in my family from persecution in Russia and the Holocaust,” Lipman said. “America has given me so much in terms of my values of tolerance and respecting one another, I felt like I was smacking my country in the face.”

But Lipman seemed giddy to be have a shot at making his mark in Israeli politics. He said he wants his work in the Knesset to be a continuation of what of he was doing as an activist in Bet Shemesh.

“Extremism happens when the Ultra-Orthodox community is isolated. So, the more they’re isolated, the more they’re not part of the broader society, the more extremism can be bred,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create a situation where they continue religious observance as they are, but they’re serving in the army, serving in national service, going to school, working,” Lipman said.

It's not going to happen over night, he admits, but the process will decrease extremism. And as that happens, he hopes there will be fewer events like what happened in Bet Shemesh.

Lipman repeated his belief that many people in the Ultra-Orthodox community are ready for change. And with his religious background, he said he can be a bridge between them and the Israeli mainstream.

But this won't be easy, according to Gil Hoffman, who covers politics for the Jerusalem Post.

“It’s true that there is a lot of Ultra-Orthodox grass-roots who realize that things have gotten out of hand,” Hoffman said. “Unfortunately, it’s the rabbis who make the decisions for them. And their rabbis aren’t going to realize that anytime soon.”

The challenge, he said, can't be underestimated.

“You’re talking about changing a culture among people who are raised to be uncompromising,” he said.

Dov Lipman spoke in parliament for the first time last week, making a pitch for compromise.

Some 70 years ago, Lipman said, his grandmother, Ethel Kleinman, emerged from Auschwitz. She told him there were no sectarian divisions in the death camps.

“No one spoke of secular, religious, traditional or Ultra-Orthodox,” Lipman said.

And neither did the Nazis.

“As far as they were concerned, they were all Jews, subject to the same cruel fate.”

Lipman went on to call on his colleagues to do the same, by breaking down the sectarian divisions in Israeli politics and society today.

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