Will Rabbi Dov Lipman Convince English-speaking Israelis to Vote for Yair Lapid?

Last Hanukkah, the Beit Shemesh rabbi was fighting against religious extremism in his community; now he's fighting for a spot in the Knesset with journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid.

What a difference a year has made for Rabbi Dov Lipman.

Last Hanukkah, he was still embroiled in the fight over the Orot Banot girls’ school in Beit Shemesh, having led the charge to protect the national religious schoolgirls from harassment by ultra-Orthodox extremists who objected to the presence of their new school at the edge of their neighborhood.

This week, with Hanukkah approaching once more, Lipman was on stage with Yair Lapid, being presented as a candidate on Yesh Atid's list for the Knesset. The year in between has been a political rollercoaster ride for Lipman, who immigrated to Israel eight years ago from Silver Spring, Maryland.

The son of a federal United States judge, he is best described as "yeshivish": a step more observant than knitted-kippah modern Orthodox but less full-on shtetl than classic Israeli Haredim. A rabbi and teacher by profession, he has never been very good at concealing his political ambitions. Not only did he grow up in and around the Capitol Beltway, he interned on Capitol Hill while in high school and he has been active in Beit Shemesh politics almost since arriving in Israel.

In early 2011, Lipman hitched his wagon to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, the Shas maverick who broke with the Sephardic Haredi party due to his advocacy of Haredi enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces and greater participation in the country's workforce, who went on to form his own party, Am Shalem. For a year, Lipman was at Amsellem’s side, translating his message into English, forming an “Anglos for Am Shalem” group, taking him to light Hannukah candles at the home of Na’ama Margolese, the little girl who was the symbol of the Orot battle and even showing him around Washington, D.C. and the American Jewish community. It was understood that Lipman's efforts would earn him a high spot on the Am Shalem list.

But in June, less than two weeks after touting Amsellem in a newspaper column as a "true leader and a hero," he announced his departure from the party. Lipman says it was impossible for him to stick to his beliefs and stay in Am Shalem because, “I did not see their direction as consistent with who I am,” despite what he described as “their generous offer to be on their list.”

It’s not clear what precipitated Lipman's departure. What is clear is that ultimately Lipman didn’t fit into the ethnic constellation that Amsellem was trying to create. Lipman’s very un-Sephardic appearance, his heavy American accent and his high-profile activities in Beit Shemesh, which were tagged by many as inflammatory and anti-Haredi, didn’t mesh with Amsellem’s plans. In addition, there's no evidence that Lipman brought Amsellem the masses of English-speaking supporters or American funding the Am Shalem founder probably hoped would come from their alliance.

In the months after Lipman’s romance with Amsellem fell apart, his relationship with Lapid began to blossom. Theirs was even more of an odd pairing. Lipman and most of his English-speaking supporters in Beit Shemesh are "Haredi-light" or national religious. Not only is Lapid secular, but his late father, Tommy Lapid, built his political career and party, Shinui, on public resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Lipman, however, says he experienced an epiphany during the Orot fight. He had previously regarded the secular Tel Aviv crowd, including figures like Lapid, as hostile to religion. Instead, he says, he found them respectful and willing to make common cause with him in the struggle against Haredi extremism in Beit Shemesh. Lipman and Lapid also share the belief that the Haredi population should serve in the IDF – Lipman was a speaker at a mass rally for equitable service in July – and that Haredi educational institutions should offer basic secular education to prepare students for the job market.

One of Lipman's staunch supporters, his Beit Shemesh neighbor Alisa Fox Coleman, says while his party affiliation may have changed, his principles haven’t. “I’ve heard him speak around the country over the past year, and there is no change in his opinions or his message. His message is one of unity – Orthodox, secular, women, immigrants, everybody."

Coleman has been busy over the past month, arranging parlor meetings for Lipman and promoting him and Yesh Atid online in English. The prospect of his run was more exciting a month or two ago, when Lapid’s polling numbers were higher, and Lipman expected to be higher on the list – leaks have him in the “bar mitzvah” spot at No. 13. But Lapid's strategy was to announce the candidate list one by one over a month, a plan that was upended by Israel's recent Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. Then, the Lapid gang waited until after the Labor and Likud primaries to finally unveil its final line-up, and by the time the dust settled this week, Lipman had been pushed back to the 17th spot.

He was already unlikely to make it into the Knesset at 13, but at 17, and with Livni coming into the race and splitting the centrist votes, it is fairly safe to assume there will be no MK Dov Lipman in 2013.

But even without a viable shot at a Knesset seat, Lipman continues to energetically carry water for Lapid. His audience is primarily national religious English-speakers who are extremely skeptical of Lapid, with his lack of political experience and "un-politician" list. Lipman defends Yesh Atid against accusations that it's a vanity project for Lapid, arguing in parlor meetings and on Facebook that its brand of "new politics" makes it “the only party with clear plans to address the burning issues within Israeli society” such as equality in national service, education, housing, cost of living and electoral reform. 

While Lipman is admired for confronting Haredi extremism, other areas are much more problematic with the religious Anglo crowd. For those used to voting center-right on security issues, there is deep suspicion regarding Yesh Atid’s positions on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He responds that, yes, Yesh Atid favors negotiations, but insists it is centrist, not center-left. “If it won't be a real peace deal we won't do it," he said.  "We have to be exploring solutions to a problem which exists. If we cannot find them, we cannot find them but we need to be trying.”

And there are problems on the religious front as well. Lapid believes public transportation should be permitted on Shabbat – and Lipman’s defense of that position has also come under attack. How can a rabbi endorse a change in the status quo that will cause more Jews to violate Shabbat, they ask? Lipman repeats again and again that “Yair is not his father,” pointing out that a religious Zionist rabbi holds the No. 2 spot on the Yesh Atid list and that the party aims for secular-religious cooperation. On the bus issue he said, “I am against religious coercion and think Judaism will be strengthened in Israel when we stop coercion.”

Lipman doesn’t seem to mind the rough-and-tumble back-and-forth, even when it gets vicious. In fact, he sometimes seems to enjoy it. Anything but camera-shy, his media moments included visiting a Christian monastery after it was defaced and painting over the graffiti and visiting Sderot during Operation Pillar of Defense.

His favorite anecdote, which he never hesitates to tell journalists, is about the day, soon after arriving in Beit Shemesh in 2004, when Haredim were rioting near his house. He says he went out to see what was happening and a rock hit and injured his leg. That incident, he will tell you (and he’ll even show you the rock, which he saved!) is what galvanized him to fight for Jewish unity. He says he thought a rock might one day hit him in Israel, but he never dreamed it would be hurled by a fellow Jew.

Presumably, if he can handle the rocks, spitting and threats that have come with living in Beit Shemesh over the past eight years, he can handle the flack being thrown at Lapid and Yesh Atid. The question is: will that effort result in a real place for the Beltway rabbi in the Israeli halls of power?

Gil Cohen-Magen