By Larry Gordon
As was reported here previously, the New York area Jewish community played host last week to Rabbi Dov Lipman, a new Member of Knesset in Israel, part of the new and sometimes controversial Yesh Atid party led by former journalist Yair Lapid.
It was an exciting week and jam-packed as well as fascinating. Over Friday and Shabbos I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with MK Lipman and learned up close the details of the proposed exciting yet caution-filled changes that will most likely take place in Israel over the next several years.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing to see as an observer and as a reporter tagging along with Lipman was the fashion in which people questioned him on issues and responded to his presence. Dov Lipman is an American boy from Silver Spring, Maryland, and by his own admission says that the very last thing he thought he would ever do was serve as a member of Israel’s parliament.
He is not only there, but he is also in the unique position of being the only “yeshivish” member of a party that is in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. The so-called real chareidim, so to speak, of Shas and United Torah Judaism, have found themselves on the outs and part of the parliamentary opposition. How this happened can only be attributed to bungling, self-centeredness, and a thirst for power that just did not work out.
So now 41-year-old Dov Lipman has become a combination of lightning rod and shock absorber for change in Israeli society. In a private meeting with community leaders that I attended with Lipman last Friday the first question asked was, “How did you end up in this party?”
The thrust of that inquiry is not so much about Rabbi Lipman but rather about the leader and founder of Yesh Atid, former broadcaster Yair Lapid. His father, Tommy Lapid, once led a Knesset party in the days of Ariel Sharon. The elder Lapid was openly and even virulently antagonistic to religion and the religious population in Israel. His party, Shinui, caught the fancy of the extensively non-observant Israeli public, and in 2003 Shinui garnered 15 seats in the Knesset making it the largest party after Likud and Labor. Sharon brought Shinui into the coalition together with what was then Agudath Yisrael, but the coalition did not last and Tommy Lapid quit the Sharon coalition.
Of course there was no one like Dov Lipman in the old Shinui party. And when asked about the similarities of the two situations, he says plainly that the son is not the father. “Yair is simply not Tommy.”
Yair Lapid has apparently demonstrated that contrast right from the beginning. In his 19-seat Yesh Atid Party are two rabbis—Shai Piron, in seat #2, and Lipman in seat #17. And that is one of the other criticisms of this seemingly peculiar association that was heard more than a few times. That was that Lapid never imagined that he would win 19 seats, and he parked Lipman at Number 17 with no plan for him to actually occupy a seat in the Knesset.
But that was and is quite all right with Rabbi Lipman. As he stated more than once at the outset of this process, he never had a plan to become a member of the Knesset. His idea to get involved with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid was to help and have input in bringing Jews together and unifying the country. That he has now ended up in the Knesset is an extra added attraction.
In addition to speaking at several local yeshivas in the Five Towns, Lipman also spoke at Yeshiva University and at the 92 St Y.
It seems that in a way there are two opposing forces at play here in terms of the issues of the day. The main agenda items talked about at just about every venue were the matter of yeshiva students committed to a lifetime in yeshiva doing some form of national service. The most common misimpression here is that yeshiva students will be forced into the army. MK Lipman says that this is absolutely not true and was never the plan.
The other issue that we discussed here the other week was the matter of the parameters of conversions in the country. It is on both these issues that the country is divided, and the new government is working on finding a workable consensus that people can manage and integrate into their lives.
MK Lipman was very upfront and genuine about these matters, especially about the national service situation. He says that he has met with gedolei Yisrael and several Rebbes in Eretz Yisrael. Sure, he says, there is concern as there always is when there is change, especially drastic change. But, he adds, the consensus of the leadership has been that something needed to be done. The system as it exists today is unsustainable. He asked one rosh yeshiva to please say publicly what he said to him privately. The rosh yeshiva said that he was sorry but he just could not do that.
And these matters go further than that. Some of the meetings on these matters were held on the condition that the fact that the meetings took place could not be revealed either. This increases the frustration but also is indicative of the newness of the effort to tackle these issues and effectuate good, healthy, and productive change.
One of the things that Dov Lipman accomplished here in New York last week was to sort out the hyperbole from the reality. Yes, some of the declarations made by Mr. Lapid during the election campaign were not helpful or encouraging. References to the need for all yeshiva students to serve in the military in some fashion were not especially comforting to a community that has grown accustomed to things being a certain way dating back to the founding of the state in 1948.
The words may have been shocking and even extreme, but the reality of politics is that once a government needs to be formed, the rhetoric inevitably is toned down as reality sets in.
Dov Lipman says that from the people he has spoken to—both in leadership and in rank and file—all agree that there has to be some kind of change. And one of the primary functions of a person like Dov Lipman is to see to it that the maximum respect for Torah and the Torah way of life is accorded.
So after spending the weekend with Rabbi Lipman, there are several important things that can be concluded. The first is that something has to change and that is agreed to at every level. Secondly, the changes are set to take place gradually over a five-year period. Thirdly, yeshiva students will not be required to serve or do national service until the age of 21. Beginning immediately, those in the yeshiva communities who want to go to work without doing national service will be allowed to do so immediately and prior to any type of registering for the new system is scheduled to take place.
Perhaps of greatest concern was the disturbing idea and image that was presented as becoming possible—of yeshiva students being dragged off to jail for refusing to register or enlist; this is completely erroneous. Those who refuse to register for national service may have to pay a higher tax once they begin working than those who do serve. In addition, 1,800 students of each annual class of 7,000 that usually are committed to studying in yeshiva full time will be fully exempt.
As far as I can tell, no one in the current government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, in Yesh Atid, or in Naftali Bennett’s Bayit HaYehudi party wants to deconstruct Torah life in Israel at it exists today. Anyone who says that this is either an obvious or a secret agenda is being intellectually dishonest. The agenda is to not just preserve the Torah way of life as we know it but to enhance it along with an effort to create an environment in which yeshiva families can live, grow, and thrive.
MK Lipman will be a key player in this effort as it goes forward over the next few months and years. It was important and refreshing to hear his insightful words of hope for a bright and exciting future. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.