When Dov Lipman graduated from Yeshiva High School in Silver Spring Maryland, his English teacher wrote in his senior yearbook, “Looking forward to seeing you as a U.S. senator one day.”
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The teacher came close. Right job, wrong country.
Dov Lipman, who immigrated to Israel from the United States only eight years ago, will soon take his seat in the Knesset, the lucky beneficiary of the success of the Yesh Atid party led by former Israeli television journalist Yair Lapid.
He speaks on the phone from his car while rushing between meetings and press interviews the morning after election night. He’s still flying high from the victory and almost in disbelief about what has happened. He informs me that during our conversation, a stream of congratulatory text messages and emails keep popping up on his phone as his friends and family in the United States wake up to the news that the rabbi, teacher and rabid sports fan is headed for Israel’s parliament.
Throughout Yesh Atid’s Knesset campaign, Lipman, 41, worked tirelessly, but not because he believed his efforts would earn him a Knesset seat. He was placed at No. 17 on Yesh Atid’s list, and even the most optimistic polls were showing the party garnering just 12 to 15 seats. “I maintained a perspective that maybe in future elections I could be a candidate for Knesset, but now I was working for sake of the party, not for myself.”
Then Election Day came around. The media were prohibited from releasing exit poll results, but unofficial reports of a dramatic Yesh Atid surge to exactly 17 seats were flying around Facebook, Twitter and the real world too. Lipman was in an uncertain position.
At that moment, he says, “there was a tremendous wave of support for me in the English-speaking community. People began calling me and telling me that they had planned to vote for a different party but were voting Yesh Atid to get me in. I was, and still am, very honored that people were ready to do that.”
Now that he is headed for the Knesset, he intends to return the favor. Finally, he says, the English-speaking immigrant community will have their own “congressman.”
“We will be there to help anyone with any problems they are having,” he says. “They will have an address in the Knesset.”
He says he is braced for the deluge of requests that statement will invite. As the first “Anglo” immigrant in the Knesset in three decades (he prefers to avoid the topic of the Anglo MK before him, Meir Kahane), Lipman doesn’t plan to spend his time shmoozing in the Knesset cafeteria, and is ready to work hard. “I definitely feel the weight of the responsibility. I am taking this very seriously, but I know I have people around me who will help make it happen, and I embrace it.”
Lipman, like his leader, Lapid, sometimes comes off as so hopeful and idealistic that people suspect it’s an act. But Sara Eisen, a Beit Shemesh neighbor of his who grew up with him in Silver Spring, Maryland, insists he’s the real deal.
“In high school, he was captain of the basketball team and the student council president. He was always friends with all kinds of people. He had friends who were on all sides of him religiously. Even though he was one of the more religious boys, he was still friends with many girls. Basically, he was that very clean-cut all-around good guy who was always very principled and active and at the forefront of whatever was going on.”
In short, he hasn’t changed much. Eisen was friendly with his sisters in high school as well, and Lipman’s mother, who now also lives in Beit Shemesh, was her “amazing” drama teacher in the girl’s side of their Orthodox high school.
Lipman’s late father was an administrative judge and a pillar of the Silver Spring Orthodox community. A snippet from his obituary from the Washington Jewish Week makes him sound like a unique figure. “Ronald Jay Lipman was known as the 'Candyman' at the Woodside Synagogue Ahavas Torah in Silver Spring. On Shabbat mornings, following his rules, children were permitted to line up for a lollipop after kissing the Torah on its way to the bima. They then said "Good Shabbos" to him and were rewarded with a smile and a sweet Shabbat treat.”
Professionally, Lipman may have chosen a different professional direction than his father, completing his rabbinical education at the Ner Yisroel yeshiva in Baltimore, but in every other way, “he was my role model” and, the only boy in the family, the two were “very close” and “Even today, in many situations, I regularly ask myself what he would do.”
The image of his father, an intensely committed Orthodox Jew who was successful and respected in mainstream America, looms over his top priority as a Knesset member.
He publicly calls himself Haredi and wears the requisite black kippa, but is clearly on the modern end of that spectrum in Israel. His personal identity and political agenda are inextricable. He believes firmly that most Haredim in Israel do not want to be mired in poverty and that Torah study and professional competence - as well as army service - are perfectly compatible.
Bringing American Haredi to Israel
“My dream is be to bring the American style of being Haredi to Israel. In the U.S., even the most heavy duty yeshivas have general studies,” he points out. “The time has come to model the American approach, and make it clear that a Haredi person can have educational and professional success without sacrificing their level of religiosity.”
In the United States, he notes, yeshivas use textbooks for general studies that have been vetted and approved by rabbis. With that kind of supervision, he says, “there’s no reason why general studies can’t accompany Torah learning."
Together with education, he hopes to make a difference in immigration and absorption, particularly when it comes to difficulties with the religious establishment. “I’m interested in helping the Ethiopian community as much as I can, and I would like to be part of helping Russian immigrants in terms of conversion. Since Rav Chaim Amsalem [the Shas breakaway leader with whom Lipman was politically aligned during 2011, before Lapid came on the scene] won’t be in the Knesset, I feel I need to take up his cause and be a voice for those who were persecuted in Russia for being Jewish and are now persecuted here for being non-Jews.”
He also hopes to be active in “stimulating aliyah from many communities.”
One thing he is not looking forward to about joining the Knesset is the requirement that he give up his U.S. citizenship. After all, he grew up in Washington, D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill. “I am going to be relinquishing my U.S. citizenship with a very heavy heart,” he said.
Tough enough for Knesset
Still, anyone who thinks Lipman might be too American – too idealistic, naive and wide-eyed for the rough and tumble of Israeli political life - hasn’t been watching him in Beit Shemesh, where, for the past five years, he has challenged what many in the city believe is the Shas mayor’s apparent desire to turn it into a predominantly, if not completely, Haredi city like Bnei Brak. It was a battle that has been primarily centered around housing issues. Then, last winter, extreme ultra-Orthodox men began harassing and bullying the elementary school girls at Orot Banot across the street from Lipman’s house. Even though his own children don’t attend the school, Lipman volunteered daily to protect the girls and confront their harassers.
Orot Banot and Beit Shemesh became a national cause after a Channel 2 news broadcast about the harassment and the battle aired - that newscast was anchored by none other than then-journalist Yair Lapid. The story awakened a huge outcry, and Lipman began working with secular organizations planning a major protest demonstration, which received national attention.
A political career was not remotely part of his plan when he first moved to Israel. He was busy finding his way, working as a teacher, a basketball coach and writing books. One of his books combines his passion for religion with his passion for sports (he is a devoted fan of all of the Washington and Maryland teams - Redskins, Orioles, Capitals, Wizards) teaching Torah values through athletic stories. “I thought of maybe being in the Education Ministry, if I ever got tired of teaching, I would be involved in curriculum. But not at the political level,” he said.
But he already speaks like a seasoned politician when asked about coalition-building. “We are about what we want to get accomplished. If we feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu will get [the Yesh Atid agenda] done, we will join him and the same goes for other partners.”
As for the Habayit Hayehudi (literally “Jewish Home”) party and its leader Naftali Bennett, the national religious politician who was the star of the 2013 campaign before Lapid stole his thunder, Lipman says: “I only have good things to say about Naftali. Their party stands for good things that I believe in as well. But I do have to say I felt they were misrepresenting themselves. It’s fine to be a religious Zionist party that welcomes secular people, but saying they were a home for all Jews was misleading.” Citing Yesh Atid’s diversity, Lipman says, “We are the real Jewish home.”
Lipman’s embrace of Yesh Atid and Lapid has elicited a healthy dose of skepticism and criticism from his Orthodox Beit Shemesh community − where he lives with his wife Dina, a preschool teacher, and their four kids − which tilts far more toward Bennett than Lapid.
But he believes this will change, and soon.
“I think the religious community has their fears about Yair, but over time they will see that he is not against them,” says Lipman. “People will start to understand his vision of religious and secular working together, not against one another, and they will see its value.”
In addition to a common political vision, Lapid and Lipman also share a similar experience: the loss of their fathers, both larger-than-life public figures, occurring shortly before a mid-life turn toward politics. Lipman said that he thought of his father on election night and that “my one big regret that he couldn’t be here to meet and talk to Yair. They would have loved each other.”
Eisen remembers the strong impact that his father’s death had on Lipman so soon after he made aliyah. She thinks it is no coincidence that he became embroiled in the fight against ultra-Orthodox extremism and violence happening on his doorstep. “I think the loss of his father was something that made Dov want to fix Beit Shemesh. The fact that there was injustice in front of him, his generally involved personality, and his realization that his father was gone - I think that was the triple cocktail that drove him into community activism.”
Lipman has told the story of the birth of his political awakening in Beit Shemesh to journalists and other visitors many times. It happened when a rock thrown from a Haredi protest hit Lipman in the leg, and he was incredulous that he had moved to Israel and “was hit by a rock that was not thrown by a Palestinian, but a fellow Jew.”
Lipman saved the evidence, keeping the stone right next to his home computer to inspire him when he writes.
But now it’s heading to a new location. “That rock will be sitting on my desk in the Knesset.”