Knesset Member Rabbi Dov Lipman Shares Personal and Political Journey with YU Students

On April 10, Member of the Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman gave Yeshiva University students an inside perspective on his transformation from Orthodox American rabbi and educator to revolutionary Israeli policymaker at a YU Israel Club event on the Wilf Campus.

Dov Lipman

American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman shares his story at YU.

“When my family and I boarded our Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in 2004, the farthest thing from my mind was entering Israeli politics, and becoming a Knesset member was even further,” Lipman told the crowd.

The son of a United States federal judge, Lipman had grown up in Silver Spring, Maryland, received semikha at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University, and served in various educational and administrative capacities at community schools before deciding to make aliyah. “My wife and I moved to Israel prepared for all kinds of scenarios,” Lipman said. “We knew there could be wars or, G-d forbid, terrorism.”

What they were not prepared for was the bitterness of the divide between Jewish communities within Israel. Shortly after their arrival in Beit Shemesh, Lipman was hit by a rock which had been lobbed at him by a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) protest group. “The thought of a Jew throwing a rock at another Jew was not something I ever imagined,” he said. “It shook me up on many levels. And the idea that this was just a part of Israeli life that you had to accept was totally unacceptable to me.” Determined to change that mindset, Lipman began getting involved in city affairs, organizing demonstrations and writing columns in The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel—advocating for a more unified Israel based on Jewish values.

Perhaps most famously, Lipman gained national attention in late 2011 for speaking out publicly against a zealot group in Beit Shemesh that verbally assaulted young girls on their way home from school. Though his role in battling extremism garnered him criticism as well as praise, Lipman told students he felt he had done the right thing by labeling the group “kitzonim,” or extremists, in the media. “People who spit and curse at little girls are not representative of the Haredi community or Torah values,” he said. “By choosing my words carefully, I left the way open for the leadership of the Haredi community to say, ‘We are not with these people and we condemn their actions.’ Sadly, they took it as an attack and responded defensively, which was a mistake.”

Frustrated by his lack of progress, Lipman became convinced that nothing would change unless the government itself changed first. “My focus wasn’t so much about changing things within the Haredi system as creating unity within Israel—a party where men, women, Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Ethiopians, Russians and everyone else could work together to break down the barriers that prevent us from functioning as one people.”Lipman3

Lipman had almost given up hope of finding any such party when a close friend, and current chief of staff, sent him a link to a speech Yesh Atid founder Yair Lapid had given at a Haredi program imploring the community to work together with secular and more modern Jewish groups to make Israel a better country. “I felt this hand coming out of the secular side reaching out to the religious community and I wanted to be one of those people that grabbed that hand and said, ‘We can do this and it’s so much what I always believed,’ ” said Lipman.

Lapid and Lipman struck up a partnership that led to Lipman’s nomination and eventual election as one of 19 Yesh Atid members to win Knesset seats in January’s election. Comprising a diverse group of people, both religiously and politically, the party seeks to model the respectful discourse and collaboration it would like to see among many different circles of Israeli society. “We’re reaching out beyond our comfort zones to tackle issues of religion and state that previously no one has wanted to touch,” said Lipman, listing the equalization of national and military service among secular and religious Jews, education reform, and conversion and marriage processes with Israel as some of the first topics the party will address.

Initially, Lipman was nervous that his still-developing Hebrew skills and unfamiliarity with Israeli culture would hinder his effectiveness as a politician. However, he told students, that hasn’t been the case. “If you try to speak in Hebrew, Israelis are very forgiving if you make a few mistakes,” he said. “I think they’re proud someone like me could move to Israel and serve on the Knesset. My biggest message to you if you want to get involved in Israeli politics is that you can and should pursue it—Americans bring a certain value system which is very necessary in the Israeli world.”

Eli Levtov, a Yeshiva College sophomore, found that last point especially intriguing. “It’s very interesting to see how he as an American could affect real change in the Israeli government,” he said. “The American-Israeli relationship has always fascinated me. Whether I’m there or here, I hear a lot about the good and the bad aspects of it, and to hear how he integrated both perspectives is important.”

“At a time when people no longer talk but scream at each other without understanding each other, people like Rabbi Lipman give us new hope that Israel will start representing us as a people who aren’t identical, working together to further the good of Israel and the Jewish people,” said YU President Richard M. Joel.