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The MK As Bridge Builder

The MK As Bridge Builder

An American-born, moderate haredi lawmaker is a new kind of Israeli politician. Can he help bring about change?

Born and raised in the U.S., Rabbi Dov Lipman recently became a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party. Both haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and worldly, Lipman, 41, studied at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University, where he received a master’s degree in education.

An educator and community activist who led the fight last year against haredi extremists who attacked schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh, Lipman believes that haredi society needs to integrate more into Israeli society, not only for the country’s benefit but the haredi community’s as well.

He has been hailed in some quarters as a politician who can bring secular and religious Israelis together, and he has been pilloried by some in the haredi community for abandoning their core issues. The Jewish Week caught up with Lipman by phone recently for a wide-ranging discussion on his background and his politics. This is an edited transcript.

How do you describe your religious affiliation?

My goal is that everyone can say they’re Jewish and not define themselves. It’s everyone’s own private affair. Having said that, I certainly identify with the haredi community’s concerns about the impact of secular society, and I certainly adhere to its following of the code of Jewish law as the basis for Jewish practice. But for me, haredi doesn’t mean anti-Zionist or anti-general education or anti-joining the workforce.

You were born and raised in the U.S. How has your American upbringing influenced the Knesset member you are today?

I grew up knowing that you turn to your local congressman for help. Though Israeli Knesset members don’t represent a particular region, I very much view myself as a representative for three specific populations: Beit Shemesh, where I live, and which has never had an MK; the English-speaking population — in Israel, 170,000 English-language voters voted in the last election; and third, moderate haredim: haredim who believe in general education. I don’t think either of the haredi parties represents them.

Reflecting my American background, we set up constituent hours in the Knesset every Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon. I’m told, I’m the only one in the Knesset doing this.

My overall approach, also reflecting my American upbringing, is respecting everyone. I grew up in a neighborhood where I met people of all backgrounds. I grew up playing basketball with people of all races and faiths. These experiences lend themselves to the perspective that drives much of what I’m doing in the Knesset.

Do you see yourself as a bridge between people?

Absolutely. Right now I’m in the car driving up to Kiryat Shemona to be on a panel with Ayelet Shaked [a secular Knesset member from the Jewish Home party]. Mine will be the religious voice.

And I’m one of the three religious people — the other two are Shai Peron and Aliza Lavie — in the otherwise secular Yesh Atid party. Yair [Lapid] wanted to bring religious people into the party to serve as a bridge.

On an individual level, visitors come to the Knesset all the time, especially in groups, and I try to be available to speak with them. Think of how many secular kids have never heard someone who looks like me and lives the lifestyle I live say that I respect them 100 percent for who they are and have no agenda to change them.

Why do you believe it’s important for many more haredi men to enter the workforce, a move most haredi leaders vehemently oppose?

I think it’s important for everyone in Israel to enter the workforce. It’s one of the core Jewish values according to classic Jewish sources. The Torah says that six days you should work and one day you should rest. The Talmud says every father is obligated to teach his son a trade. Every male under the chupah accepts upon himself to support the family. Generations have had that as a value. Even the greatest scholars understood it’s a primary value.

My experience studying at the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore showed me you can be a scholar on the highest level and scrupulously Orthodox and still earn a living. But in the minds of Israeli haredim it’s not possible because of the way they’ve been educated.

Haredim meet with me and they say the moment they go to work they’re considered “sug bet,” second class, in their communities. I think we should be strengthening the haredi community to bring people up to know you can be ben Torah, a scholar, with the highest level of dignity. The overwhelming majority of yeshiva students who are not cut out to study Torah day and night will be proud while contributing to the workforce.

You lead a religious lifestyle based on both Jewish and democratic values. How does that play out?

In the laws that I’m initiating, I’m trying to find core Jewish values that all of us can unite around. My first law, which was small on a certain level, was to forbid the import of foie gras because the process causes pain to the animals. We were able to get support from every party, from [Sephardi haredi] Shas to the Arab parties.

I’m also a co-sponsor of a bill to appoint one, not two, chief rabbis, because there’s no need for more than one. Having two generates polarization from the top down. Even though people have different customs, we should unite behind one personality. While the bill won’t apply when the next chief rabbis are chosen later this year, hopefully it will apply next time. You have to start somewhere.

Why do you insist that for a school to receive government funding, it must teach basic secular subjects, something most haredi schools don’t teach?

I founded a Knesset task force to help haredim enter the workforce and in the first meeting Adina Bar-Shalom, the founder of the Haredi College of Jerusalem and the daughter of [former Sephardi Chief] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said 50 percent of the males drop out of the program because they don’t have math and English skills.

The government has limited funds and you can’t ask it for funding and at the same time refuse to teach general studies. Requesting that people study math and English in school isn’t foreign to Torah values. The government funds schools to empower young people economically. I’m very proud of our party — we insisted that the budget commit to NIS 200 million [$50 million] for programs to get haredim into the workforce. They have special needs we want to be sensitive to.

You also want to see more women’s voices in the religious world.

I’m hopeful. We just passed a law that I co-sponsored that says that women have to be on the committee to choose the rabbinic judges in Israel. We feel that in a world where the majority of issues the rabbinic judges deal with relate to women, women should be part of the decision-making process to choose these judges, in a halachic way. That’s a centrist approach.

How do you feel about the written/verbal attacks against you and your positions from haredi commentators, and how have you dealt with such attacks?

In general, I don’t pay much attention to the attacks. I am busy all day working hard for the Jewish people and certainly don’t read it. The attacks from rabbinic leaders took a toll because it led to friends and people close to me questioning me and my efforts. However, after having the chance to explain myself and showing them that most of the information is false and mere propaganda, their support is restored.

In terms of how I deal with the negativity personally, I focus on the haredim who we are helping and who beg us to continue on. And I also focus on the more secular side that expresses inspiration and renewed interest in Judaism as a result of our more moderate and embracing approach.

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