From the Judean Hills to Capitol Hill

Amsalem and political activist R' Lipman take their message of religious tolerance to Washington.

Rabbi Dov Lipman 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Dov Lipman)
Rabbi Dov Lipman 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Dov Lipman)
Knesset member Rabbi Haim Amsalem and political activist Rabbi Dov Lipman, a resident of Beit Shemesh and a leader in the effort to fight religious extremism in the city, were among four government representatives who participated earlier this month in the 60th National Prayer Service in Washington.
MKs Yoel Hasson and Dr. Rachel Adatto, both of Kadima, also attended.
Amsalem, a former member of Shas, created the new Am Shalem [“whole nation”] political movement this year to promote religious tolerance and unity. He regularly attends a monthly prayer breakfast at the Knesset and was therefore asked to join the Washington program. Lipman was invited by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who had read about his fight to stop the violence in Beit Shemesh emanating from a small but powerful minority within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.
“Just about every person who heard I’m from Beit Shemesh knew the story of the extremism here, but I was able to explain to them what we’re doing to stop it,” Lipman, an educator and author, tells In Jerusalem. “I said that in the Middle East, where fanaticism and fundamentalism spread like wildfire, we live in a democracy and a free country and we’re fighting against any elements of religious coercion. People were very inspired to hear about what we’re doing and that Israel stands for freedom of religion.”
Lipman believes it’s imperative to save the situation in Beit Shemesh not only for the sake of the city itself, but in order to set a precedent for other areas in the country that could be threatened by extremists.
Discussing his support for Amsalem, he says he agrees with the “effort to unify the Jewish people through stopping the extremism and coercion as well as zero tolerance for discrimination and racism, whether against immigrants, women, Sephardim or anyone else. Rabbi Amsalem is one of the leading fighters here on behalf of the Ethiopian immigrants.”
Lipman was impressed by the Washington event.
“I really like the idea of everyone putting aside ideological differences and rallying around the concept that we’re all created by God,” he enthuses. “At least we agree on that. It enables so many conversations that never would have happened; for example, between Rabbi Amsalem, an ultra-Orthodox Knesset member, and a sheikh from Iraq. I had in-depth conversations with members of parliament from Macedonia and Ukraine, with representatives from India and with the former president of Bolivia, among others.”
According to Lipman, many among the crowd said they “were honored by the presence of two rabbis from Israel. You could sense the respect. They asked Rabbi Amsalem to open up one of the breakfasts with the reciting of Psalms.”
Also, “the organizers invited us back for next year and grabbed the offer when Rabbi Amsalem said he would teach the crowd how to sing a part of the Psalms as a group.”
As visibly religious Jews, “we definitely stood out, so much so that the official While House video of the event focused largely on us.”
Their presence was “absolutely a kiddush Hashem” – sanctification of God’s name, meaning something that shows Jews in a good light – Lipman asserts, explaining that “most of them probably had images in their minds of ultra-Orthodox Jews being intolerant and unable to communicate properly with anyone different,” especially due to recent events in Beit Shemesh that were widely publicized on an international scale.
“It was very important for them to see that we’re open to dialogue.
People had a lot of questions about Judaism and Israel.”
Among the congressmen they met was Trent Franks of Arizona, who “heads international causes for religious freedom. He was very interested in our story and plans to stay in touch about how we can work together.”
Lipman found the event to be a “very enlightening experience.
Any Muslim I met there said that those out to kill us don’t represent them,” and they rejected the violence perpetrated in the name of their faith.
“That’s how I feel about the extremists here,” he adds. “You have to speak out against people who misrepresent our religion in order to practice abuse.”
On a lighter note, Lipman says that the kosher meal was so well sealed that unwrapping it was a “group effort at the table.
Muslims and Christians were helping me open it up.”
Washington and Beit Shemesh are twin cities through the Jewish Federation, and Lipman also met with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Plans have been in the works for Montgomery County, Maryland, a Washington suburb, to establish a sister-city relationship with Beit Shemesh as well, but officials are reassessing the situation because of Beit Shemesh’s newly earned reputation as a place that tolerates human-rights violations and harassment of women. Nevertheless, citing a good relationship with Washington-area representatives, Lipman is hopeful that the issue will be resolved before a meeting scheduled for mid-March.
Lipman, a married father of four, moved here from Silver Spring, Maryland, almost eight years ago. He holds a master’s degree from John Hopkins University and received his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore.
He says that his profound religious faith coupled with openmindedness is largely due to his education at Ner Israel.
Weinberg was “a Torah scholar of epic proportions” but also very worldly. For example, US Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, a Catholic woman, had always enjoyed a warm relationship with the Ner Israel rabbis, Lipman notes. In contrast to the exclusion of women widely practiced here in haredi circles, Mikulski had addressed the yeshiva’s annual dinner.
Lipman believes that the cosmopolitan attitude among Orthodox Jews in America is largely due to the fact that secular education is a requirement in yeshiva day schools.
“It’s important to get more haredim involved with the rest of society,” through army service and joining the workforce, he maintains, in accordance with the values espoused by Am Shalem.
Taking part in the Washington event was definitely “something special for someone who grew up in America now representing Israel in America. We talked about sports and joked around. There was camaraderie. Former governor David Beasley of South Carolina invited me to his ranch and I hope to go someday.”