Jews aren’t known for agreeing on much. Even in the days of Hillel and Shammai 2,000 years ago, disputes over the minutiae of Jewish law were unfortunate.
Today, the differences are bigger and the voices defending each case are amplified. The ongoing battle between the ultra-Orthodox and other streams of Judaism is an unfortunate one, but it’s also a continuation of our long history steeped in disagreement as to how to be Jewish.
Bill Lipsey, founder and chairman of the Honey Foundation For Israel, wants to help Jews continue not only to define what Judaism means to them, but find an active community where one can practice and bask in the joy of Torah learning and being a part of something bigger than themselves.
“What’s exciting about this is that Israelis are creating their own unique expression of Judaism,” Lipsey says. “I believe this has been happening for our entire history – this is the story of Hillel and Shammai. I want to help empower a free market.”
Government sponsorship of one expression of Judaism, the foundation argues, has deprived Israeli society from open access to their own heritage. While the ultra-Orthodox receive the vast majority of public funding, only 10% of Israelis are ultra-Orthodox. That imbalance can be addressed politically or by supporting grassroots Israeli efforts to offer religious choice. The Honey Foundation is supporting these grassroots efforts and leaving political intervention to Israelis.
The family-based foundation was inspired by a very familial problem: 10 years ago, Lipsey moved to Ra’anana with his wife, Amy, and their youngest son Josh. The conservative family joined a synagogue in Kfar Saba, which did not have a rabbi. The absence of a regular rabbi who not only served as a spiritual leader but as a community leader was something the Lipseys felt needed to be addressed. They eventually joined an Orthodox synagogue where the community was very tight-knit and a rabbi fostered a sense of belonging.
The Lipseys believe everyone in Israel should have access to that as well. But the dearth of support for any non-Orthodox streams of Judaism by the Israeli government makes this reality virtually impossible.
Hence, the Honey Foundation – named after Lipsey’s father who was, by his account, “the sweetest man” he’s ever met – strives to create that sense of open access to every Jew searching for a community that’s the right fit for him or her.
“We use the language of open access because we believe that all Jews across the world deserve to have spiritual leaders who can help them make meaning in their lives,” explains Lipsey’s daughter and the president of the foundation, Sarah Lipsey Brokman. “For each Jew, that may look different.”
How does an organization attain such a lofty goal?
Thanks to the Lipsey family’s financial commitment to this mission, they support rabbis and spiritual leaders in three ways: by providing them with a salary or stipend, creating a network where the rabbis can commiserate and support one another, and providing ongoing professional community leadership skills.
“Our rabbis learn not just how to be a posek [decisor], but a community leader,” says Sarah. “They learn skills that they normally would not encounter in rabbinical school.”
Today the foundation has taken 50 Israeli rabbis and spiritual leaders under its wing, and they hope that number will exponentially increase to 500 in the near future.
This is not a vision or action plan for someone who wants immediate results, they caution. Their goal is long-term, where communities of all religious stripes will be cultivated and those who left religion behind (or never even thought to pursue it) will find an approach to religiosity that works for them. And then those very community members will enact noticeable change by deliberately voting for politicians who believe Judaism is not a zero-sum game.
The Lipseys are already seeing some positive signs. Just last month they hosted their inaugural conference in Tel Aviv. What was initially intended to be a conference hosting up to 75 rabbis and spiritual leaders doubled in size.
“It became clear to us we rented too small a room,” Bill Lipsey smiles.
It was there that rabbis of all denominations were able to be in the same room together and actually listen to each other.
“Men and women from very halachic orientations to very secular orientations were all sitting together, getting to know one another and learn from each other,” he says. “Seeing them just being social was an extraordinary moment. There was joy in the room.”
Essentially, the Honey Foundation hopes that the State of Israel will make a paradigm shift where one’s value isn’t attributed to what denomination he or she belongs, or which box they check when asked what kind of Jew they are.
Instead, Lipsey hopes that one would instead take note of the good someone does in the world, and his or her adherence to tikkun olam rather than noticing with what stream they’re affiliated.
Lipsey Brokman believes that her generation – older millennials – are capable of bringing about such cataclysmic change.
“I’ve been so fortunate to meet Israelis of my age,” she says. “American Jews of my generation and Israeli Jews of my generation are going through a similar moment. I think this is the first time since the State of Israel was created that this has happened, where we feel pretty comfortable where we are. The question of ‘will Israel exist’ is less of an issue. This then leaves more space on both sides of the ocean to search for meaning and community life.”
That’s not to say the Lipseys themselves are advocating for a certain idea of what is right in terms of Halacha; they’d rather let individual communities navigate these contentious questions for themselves.
Intermarriage? Gay marriage? Conversion? These are all questions that most streams of Judaism are grappling with, and the Honey Foundation team doesn’t pretend to have or provide those answers.
“We are leaving it up to the communities and who the community chooses as their leader to make decisions like that,” says Lipsey Brokman. “At the end of the day, we believe the community has to choose its own path.”
As for Bill Lipsey, the one thing he is sure of is his contribution to the continuation of the Jewish people. He recalls an incident where a close friend asked him why go through the trouble of launching a family foundation instead of opening a trust for his children and grandchildren.
“I think the continuation of the Jewish people is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children,” Lipsey responds. “So why not give the money to my grandchildren? I am. I’m sustaining the future for their Jewish way of life.”
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