"I disagree with many policies of the Obama administration, but I know that President Barack Obama and [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel believe that what they are doing is good for Israel," says Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who for the past 15 years has been the spiritual leader of one of Chicago's most active Jewish communities, the Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel congregation.
"Rahm is a tough guy - and I'm not sure he's the best diplomat," he adds, "but I think that ultimately they think what they are doing is good for Israel."
Emanuel had to leave the community when he began began working in the White House, and later moved his family from Chicago to Washington, but Lopatin still sends them occasional e-mail messages.
In fact, the rabbi does not plan to remain in Chicago for long himself. Two weeks ago, community leaders sent a letter to members announcing the rabbi's intention to leave in the summer of 2011. They also asked for the community's support for his plans to settle in the Negev.
Some members have expressed an interest in joining the project. At present, the rabbi is traveling around the United States, speaking to various communities and trying to recruit new immigrants - particularly young couples to join him in making the desert flourish. Lopatin plans to establish the community in Carmit, about a 15-minute drive north of Be'er Sheva, where many Americans will live and where he hopes to head a successful community like he did in Chicago.
"I've been planning to make aliya for several years," he says. "I'm a modern Orthodox rabbi in America, I love being a rabbi, but saying every day that Jews should go back to Israel, well, it's time for me to do that. We have four children and our oldest is 8 now, so I want to make sure that we get to Israel before she is too old and it's too difficult for her."
Lopatin did some serious investigative work before deciding to set up his own community in Israel. In Chicago, he started off with a community of some 90 families which he expanded to several hundred; he also opened a school and conducted a flourishing debate with communities from other streams of Judaism. Eventually, he was named by Newsweek as one of the 25 most influential rabbis in the United States. Now he's planning to recreate this success in Israel.
"What I do best is being a community rabbi," Lopatin says. "In Israel there are lots of people who are talking about the need for community rabbis, who will reach out, talk to people, build a community, connect people - not just a rabbi who answers their questions about kashrut."
In Israel, officials from the Jewish National Fund showed him the site where Carmit is set to be built. "This is a community where we want to bring American Jews," they told him. "Bringing Americans to the Negev will change the image of the Negev for Israelis as well."
Lopatin wants to ensure that several principles will be upheld in Carmit. "I'm a modern Orthodox rabbi and I am really interested in pluralism and diversity - not just reaching out to the Orthodox, but to religious and secular, non-religious, different religions. [I want to see] people of different economic levels, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Americans, religious and non-religious." To close the deal, the rabbi must buy the land by the summer of 2010 and start building the following year; his ultimate objective is to set up a community of 2,600 families.
Lopatin says he is not afraid of the Negev heat. "I've been there in the summer, and it was great. Coming from Chicago - I'm looking out on this really cold day - it's lovely." Nor is he put off by concerns regarding employment. "[Carmit] is 15 minutes from Be'er Sheva," he says, "and on Route 6 it's less than an hour from Ramat Aviv. It's an hour from Jerusalem. Everyone is saying that more and more jobs will be moving down to the Negev, there is a science park that will be built in Be'er Sheva, the universities, hospitals, [even] the army is moving down."
Lopatin is also looking into eco-tourism. He has already spoken with a number of developers about constructing environmentally friendly homes, as they would like to bring in residents who care about the surroundings, he says.
Lopatin lived in Israel as a child and later spent a year studying here as well. His studies focused on Islam and Arabic philosophy of the Middle Ages and he conducted research on the approaches of Islamic fundamentalism toward Judaism. As a result, the rabbi developed some nonconformist ideas, such as "one state, democratic, Jewish and Palestinian."
According to his philosophy, there would first be "a moratorium on the demolition of Arab houses in Jerusalem, in exchange for official U.S. recognition of the right to build for natural Jewish growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank." This would be followed by "the immediate return of Gilad Shalit; release of Palestinian prisoners; U.S. commuting Jonathan Pollard and sending him to Israel."
Ultimately, he envisages a situation where Jews and Arabs will live anywhere they desire in the Land of Israel - the Jews will be able to live in all quarters of the Old City, and if they wish also in Bethlehem, Nablus and Gaza, while the Palestinians will be able to purchase property, not only in the West Bank but also in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and anywhere else. The Law of Return, he believes, should be applicable not only to Jews but also to Arabs. Israel, he says, would be able to improve its demographic balance "by letting in potentially millions of Africans, Asians and South Americans who self-identify as Jewish even if they cannot prove their Jewish descent."
Lopatin laughs and adds, "Well I don't want any of my crazy politics to jeopardize this project, but I believe strongly that if someone declares he is Jewish, basically people who want to be Jewish, let them in. Now I want to start bringing American Jews to the Negev and beyond that, there are lots of possibilities."
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