I recently sat down with my friend and newly elected member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) Rabbi Dov Lipman to discuss a variety of (mostly) non-political issues. Rabbi Lipman grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is the first American-born member of Knesset in almost thirty years. He is an ordained rabbi, a graduate of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, and received a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University.
GB: I enjoyed watching your inaugural speech in the Knesset. You had a very American ending when you said, “G-d bless the State of Israel.” Sadly we are not accustomed to hearing the Lord’s name mentioned much in Israeli politics.
DL: This is one of my areas of focus: let’s bring G-d into the conversation. Yesterday we had a discussion in the Knesset about Pollard and 31 members of Knesset got up to speak. Not one person said a word about G-d. Where is G-d? So I made a few last-minute revisions to my speech and went up to the lectern to make a plea to President Obama. Then I made a plea to Am Yisrael to join me every single morning to say a tefillah on Jonathan’s behalf. We are doing everything we can do, everything seems logical, and yet it's still not working: Pollard is still incarcerated. It’s time that we pray for rachamei shamayim (heavenly mercy). No one in the Knesset is talking about G-d. Even the charedi leadership is barely mentioning G-d, they’re only talking about Torah. But that’s backwards! Torah is one of the three things that bring us closer to G-d; Torah is not a means unto itself.
GB: Did you honestly ever think you'd become a member of Knesset or was it always in the back of your mind?
DL: It wasn't a goal of mine until the Orot Banot situation (the very sad episode of the religious fanatics verbally and physically abusing elementary school students) last year. After the problems began, we went to the police, we went to the Minister of Public Security, we went to the Prime Minister, and they could have easily solved the problem but they chose to look away. First of all I saw how easily you can solve problems, and second I saw that things are corrupt and the system has to change. That's when I felt that I’d love to enter the Knesset and be a part of the solution.
GB: Let’s discus your role models and the importance of role modeling.
DL: My father was my role model. He was a federal judge and a community activist. My goal is that as my children get older and face important life decisions, they will see the example that I set as being a person who cared but didn't just complain – rather I did something about the problems, tried my best to make things better. That's what I saw in my father. He took a lot of flak but he had his belief system and he tried to make a difference. I hope my children see that quality in me, too. I also learned from my father the important message of achdut (unity) - not just worrying about your own sector but the importance to look out for all of Am Yisrael. He also actively sought to make a Kiddush Hashem every day at work. And I've tried to do that as well. It’s funny how people in the Knesset are in shock when I pass them and wish them a good morning or ask them how they are doing. I guess the guards and the cleaning people aren’t accustomed to it, but my father greeted everyone with a smile and a kind word, and I see that my children have learned this lesson as well. They walk in the street and wish others a “Shabbat Shalom” or a “good morning.” I hope I can live up to my father’s extraordinary role modeling standards and continue to instill these life lessons in my children.
GB: What's your dream?
DL: My dream is that Israel could be a place where everybody respects each other and feels proud to be Jewish.
GB: How are you kove’a ittim l’torah (setting aside time for Torah study)?
DL: The hardest part of my new job is going from teaching Torah all day to literally having no time to learn. Every single morning before I start my day I sit down with a sefer. Some days I can only learn five minutes, other days up to an hour. But I must start every day learning Torah. And then during the day you try to steal a few minutes here and there to learn. But it’s hard. My day usually goes non-stop from the early morning until 11:00 pm or later. Because of the intensity of my schedule, Mincha (afternoon prayer) in the middle of the day is huge; I am forced to stop for 15-20 minutes and really focus on why I’m doing everything I’m doing. Every day driving up to the Knesset I am blown away by my good fortune to be working there. But once I walk in the door, it’s absolute chaos. So Mincha is so important. I always enjoyed davening but now I feel that Mincha is my key to stability. And talking about appreciation, oh my gosh do I appreciate Shabbos. I sit down Friday night at my seudah with my family - no cell phone, no one can contact me, no reporters, nothing but pure enjoyment for 25 hours.
GB: Any message to my readers who live back in the United States?
DL: I think that people in America should be raising their children to move to Israel. I am not a person who says that everyone has to make aliyah. You have your job, your family, your obligations. I understand that, but we should be raising the next generation to move to Israel. In Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) the Torah says the word “Israel” more than fifty times not even connected to a mitzvah. It’s just the place where the Jews are supposed to go. After 2000 years, we have been given back the gift of Israel. I am not saying that people should just drop everything and go, but why aren't we as a people raising our children, why aren’t the schools raising students, to pick up and come here? Twelve years in school should be enough to graduate students fluent in Hebrew so that they won’t have absorption issues. They should be trained with an eye toward professions that can be used here so that they can succeed when they arrive. I think it’s time for American Jewry to make a switch in their priorities.
Nine years ago, when I told my grandmother that I was moving here, I expected her to be upset, angry, and to ask, “how can you abandon us and move away with my great grandchildren?” Instead, she pronounced the “shehechiyanu” bracha, thanking G-d for bringing her to that special day. She then said, “When I was coming on a boat from Europe to America after the Holocaust, I asked myself, ‘why are we not going to Israel?’” I think that my grandmother’s reaction should be the authentic Jewish response. We need to be focused more on Israel.
GB: Any message to olim or potential olim?
DL: One of my roles in the Knesset is to make things easier for English-speaking olim and there are a few things already in the works. Hopefully within a few weeks I will be able to share more information. But the bigger message is that sometimes you just have to throw yourself into things. The challenges are here. In fact, the Gemorah says that living in Israel is one of three things one acquires with suffering. I think all of us who are here have experienced suffering to some degree. But living in Israel is exhilarating and I invite everyone to join us.
GB: What's your most precious mitzvah?
DL: Shofar. Two reasons: One - sometimes during prayer I would rather stand quietly than say words. Just let my mind run free. Every other thing we do in prayer, we are told what to say. Here it’s just my own mind filling in the words. Two - I was in Israel during the Gulf War and the shofar reminds me of the sirens. I imagine that siren, and it just touches me very deeply.
GB: What are your dreams for your children?
DL: That they should grow up to be people whose families have Torah learning, chesed, and shmirat hamitzvot – each within a range that works within their comfort zone. They should be very proud to be Jewish, very proud to be Israeli, and they should contribute to Klal Yisrael and be able to sustain their families.
GB: To what do you attribute your success?
DL: Two things: First is 100% the Ribono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe). There is no question about it; I saw hashgacha in everything very clearly. Second, it’s also about sticking to the truth. I have not veered away from the truth. I got involved in local politics, then with Rabbi Amsalem a little bit, and now with Yair Lapid and the Knesset. I have not veered from my message and from my sense of truth. And I tell the people who know me well that if they ever see that I am losing that edge and am not being true to myself, they should please tell me so, as I would rather end this career than not be true to my values.
GB: Let’s talk about the importance of making your mark in this world.
DL: Everybody can effect change. It doesn't have to be in the Knesset. You have to have the courage to stand up for what you believe in and do something about it. It can be in your shul, in your children's school, it can be in your block civic association or it can be in politics. Everybody can do it but the key is to always ask yourself, “aside from the fact that I’m going to work to make a parnassa – which is not insignificant – what am I doing to make a difference?” I have taught thousands of children, and I sincerely believe that every person has the ability to make a difference in some way. Always ask yourself: Am I doing that? What more can I do to make things better?
One of the challenges in the Knesset is to remember your roots. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance, a lot of press. And then you remember that there are so many people who are effecting change without all the attention, who are quietly and on a daily basis touching people's lives and making a difference. Everyone has the ability in their own unique way to make their mark and help better the world.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com. Please visit his blog at www.myisraelhome.com.