A plan to study and serve

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Former Silver Spring resident Dov Lipman is actively trying to make his adopted country of nine years a more integrated society where members of the haredi community join together with other Jews and Israeli Arabs for the betterment of society as a whole.

The Knesset member exudes confidence that Israel is going to grow stronger thanks to the combined contributions of all its citizens. By the window behind his desk stands his framed university diploma alongside his rabbinic ordination. The message is clear: Israelis can be religious and still contribute to their country.

He calls it unnatural for Jews to study Torah their entire waking hours, insisting they need to spend some time in general studies or on a job.

Lipman is extremely proud that a compromise plan he helped devise to allow the fervently Orthodox to continue studying while still serving their country passed in the Knesset on first reading last week by a vote of 61-29. The vote finally came at 5 a.m. after lengthy debate. In his office, less than nine hours later, he spoke with Washington Jewish Week on a variety of subjects including this compromise.

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The plan classifies 1,800 men each year as elite scholars. That label stays with them through their draft years. In other words, he said, “Torah study is their service.” This marks the “first time a secular government has said it views Torah study as service and a significant contribution to Israel.”

If not chosen as an elite scholar, boys aged 18, 19 and 20 can study Torah. Then, they must begin to serve in the IDF. The plan, if adopted on final reading, wouldn’t take effect until 2016 so that the IDF can prepare programs for haredi young men to study and serve. During their first two years, they would study mornings and afternoons and learn technology the rest of the day. After two years, they would then spend their day in a technology-related position and study Torah at night.

“The idea is they never leave yeshiva,” said Lipman.

Lipman said neither he nor his party, Yesh Atid, ever wanted to close down the yeshivas, as they were accused. Others likened his party to the Romans as they both destroyed Torah. “It was a misinformation campaign right from the start,” he said, noting that following last week’s vote, some haredi “tore their shirts” to show they believe a death had occurred.

But Lipman continues to only see the positive. “There is something about being unified, being a nation,” he said of bringing the very religious into the IDF. The young men and their community as a whole also will benefit, he believes. According to Lipman, the average haredi family has eight to 10 children, making it financially challenging. Their unemployment rate is over 50 percent, he noted, adding it’s probably considerably higher as many without jobs are “sheltered in the yeshiva system.”

While it used to be the religious verses the secular, Lipman believes the division in Israeli society now is between people who are involved in their country and those who are not.

As in the United States, things change when the people demand it, he believes. Six months ago, he gave up his United States citizenship and took his seat in the Knesset. Like a U.S. senator, Lipman writes laws, votes on matters and serves on several committees, called task forces. Unlike a member of the senate, Lipman does not represent a specific geographic area.

He has chosen to represent three groups. The people of Beit Shemesh, where he lives and where he started his political career, are one such group. Another group he wants to speak out for is the “moderate ultra-Orthodox community,” who Lipman said “never had a voice.” Finally, Lipman wants to represent English-speaking Israelis, 170,000 of whom voted in the last election.

Lipman expected to keep teaching. But problems in Beit Shemesh, which is paired with The Jewish Federation of Great Washington and shares in many cultural and business ventures, thrust him into politics. That area, where David is said to have slain Goliath, was in the news a few years ago for numerous incidents of spitting, name calling and stone throwing by the fervently Orthodox who believed their neighbors were violating Jewish law.

When he made aliyah in 2004, “I definitely, in Beit Shemesh, experienced firsthand religious extremism and coercion,” he said, stressing that only a small number of Jews were involved in these incidents.

A rock that rests on his desk is the same one that was aimed at the police but hit his leg instead. He uses it to hold up the gavel of his father, who was a judge.  “It is sort of a nice reminder of the bad and the good.”

That reminder stays with him when he works with the haredi community, which he does “quietly, no press involved whatsoever.” It must be this way, he explained, as “right away the haredim leadership will stop anything I do.”

Following such meetings, Lipman was able to convince a large employment agency in Israel, All Jobs, to set up a special branch for the haredim. The company now has a separate section on its website, where anyone offering a job understands the needs of the religious community.

While “none of my laws have passed yet,” Lipman said he was instrumental in getting the government to agree to a six-year minimum jail sentence for anyone attacking a religious site. “It’s disrespectful and can cause riots,” he said.

He is controversial and receives hate email. But the father of four bristles when there are those who believe he has turned to the left. “I am completely consistent with everything I have ever been,” he said. There is a difference “how you run your life verses how you run your country.”

Another project he is working on will bring together all groups in Israel that do public relations for the country. “We need to get them in touch with each other. It’s a war of legitimization for Israel, and we are losing the war right now.”

He also wants to play a role in his former country. Lipman is working on educational programs for Diaspora Jews attending Jewish schools to help them gain a true appreciation for Israel. These young students need to understand there is so much to Israel, and they should also be learning conversational Hebrew, said Lipman, who is still incredulous that “I went through 12 years of Hebrew Day School. How did I not come out speaking fluent Hebrew?”

Of course, as a Knesset member, he finds himself thinking about ways to bring peace to the region. He favors U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire to bring money and jobs to the Palestinians. He believes Israel can agree to a freeze at some major settlements and that “Jerusalem cannot be divided.”

If peace means releasing Arab prisoners, Lipman would agree “with a heavy heart” as long as those freed are approved by the country’s security leadership. Peace is in Israel’s interest, Lipman believes, adding, “We have to deal with reality.”

It is important for everyone to understand, “Even the people who are advocating peace are major Zionists. They love Israel with every fiber of their being.”

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