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In pursuit of a dream ‘sweeter than honey’
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In pursuit of a dream ‘sweeter than honey’

NJ foundation builds pluralism in Israel

Bill Lipsey addresses the first Honey Foundation Conference last month in Tel Aviv.  Photos by Herschel Gutman
Bill Lipsey addresses the first Honey Foundation Conference last month in Tel Aviv. Photos by Herschel Gutman

What do you call some 200 rabbis and other Jewish religious and community leaders from across the denominational spectrum coming together in Israel?

Not a joke — but a modern miracle.

That miracle took place May 29, and a family from Livingston made it happen.

The first conference of the Honey Foundation for Israel took place in Tel Aviv, a major part of an effort to build a countrywide network of diverse spiritual and lay leaders to discuss the needs, challenges, trends, and opportunities that face them as they work to build their respective communities.

“The Honey Foundation is a private family foundation intended to advance community religious pluralism and bring about change,” Limor Rubin, the foundation’s Israel director, told conference attendees. “This is the dream of one family from New Jersey that is sweeter than honey” and is spurred by the belief “that religious pluralism cannot be advanced without community leadership.”

The foundation sponsors 50 community rabbis who are spiritual leaders in the Reform, Masorti (Conservative), Bina (secular Judaism), KIAH (Sephardic Modern Orthodox), and Kibbutz Dati (Religious Kibbutz) movements, as well as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbanim Eretz Yisraeli and Dvash Misela programs. The foundation provides salaries, stipends, and compensation; ongoing professional development; and mentorship to the rabbis in the field.

Limor Rubin, the Honey Foundation’s Israel director, second from left, with members of the founding family, from left, Sarah Lipsey Brokman and Amy and Bill Lipsey.

“This conference was our dream since we formed the foundation three years ago,” its president, Sarah Lipsey Brokman, told NJJN. “We wanted all the rabbis and spiritual leaders we are supporting to learn together.”

To that end, there were workshops, seminars, and panels with diverse leaders. The conference opened with a motivating speech by Lipsey Brokman’s father, Bill Lipsey, the founder, along with his wife, Amy, of the foundation.

“My heart is full of emotion to be here with all of you,” he told the crowd. “We all have dreams. Some are accidental, when we are asleep. Then there are the kind that Herzl had, that we will [have].

“Your learning together and sharing with each other is my dream,” Lipsey said, “and your being here means it is also part of your dream.”

Lipsey explained how the foundation got its name: It honors his father, Jack, who died in 2015. Sarah, the oldest of his 10 grandchildren, called him “Honey” when she was a baby, and it stuck.

Lipsey described his dad as “sweet” and an “ardent Zionist,” so in tribute to him, the family established an engine to “bring about a social transformation in Israeli society.”

“We effect change by empowering community rabbis and spiritual leaders who can do the great spiritual work they are doing more effectively with more resources,” said Lipsey. “We include the entire tapestry of religious life in Israel. We hope we are inspiring the next generation of Israelis to help build meaningful pluralist life in Israel.”

The inaugural conference opened with a musical performance by, from left, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan and Daphna Rosenberg of Nava Tehila in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Esteban Gottfried of Beit Tefilah Israeli in Tel Aviv.

He continued that “our collective strength can only be experienced when all the expressions of Judaism are allowed to flourish.”

Lipsey Brokman said in her speech that she was overwhelmed with gratitude to her father and mother, her mentors and heroes, she said, who “showed me the way to be a pioneer in the world.” She also credited the religious leaders at Congregation Beth El in South Orange — where she and her husband, Yuval Brokman, and their three children are members — Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and Rabbi Rachel Marder, for modeling what community rabbis can and should be in Israel.

“We are changing the world,” Lipsey Brokman said. “Every Israeli deserves to have a rabbi or spiritual leader take care of them.”

Her parents are longtime members of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, where Sarah and her two brothers grew up, and where Bill Lipsey served as the synagogue’s president; he has also sat on the executive committee of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, for four decades the religious leader at Agudath Israel, called it a “great honor” to have been a “close friend and rabbi of the Lipsey family during the entire evolution of the Honey Foundation for Israel.”

Silverstein — whose many leadership roles have included serving as president of the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly and World Council of Masorti Synagogues and chair of the Masorti Israel Foundation — said that “experiencing the influence of my comprehensive role upon our own synagogue’s ongoing evolution, Bill, Amy, and Sarah’s eyes were prepared to assess the strengths and shortcomings of Israeli synagogue life.”

About eight years ago, when the Lipsey family lived for a year in Israel, Silverstein said they witnessed close-hand what a congregation without a skilled rabbinic leader lacked. Missing, said Silverstein, was “conscious outreach to newcomers seeking to become involved, an embracing presence for life-cycle moments of joy or of sadness, the chance to study Torah under the care of a rabbinic mentor who intimately knew their spiritual needs. Missing was a rabbinic leader providing a vision for communal growth.”

From the Lipseys’ observations, said Silverstein, the Honey Foundation emerged, “promoting synagogue rabbis for all streams of Israeli society.”

The foundation, said its leaders, does not support the mainstream ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox rabbis, who are paid by Israel’s chief rabbinate, because they do not need assistance.

“We believe every Jew has a right to select their Judaism,” Lipsey Brokman said. “Everything we are doing is supporting Israelis on the ground to create Israeli leadership. We are not sending an American system to Israel. That is an antiquated paradigm.”

Sarah Lipsey Brokman interviewing Rabbi Avram Mlotek, cofounder of Base Hillel, a pluralistic outreach program targeting Jewish millennials, who served as “guest scholar” at the conference.

While organizations like Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — of which the Lipsey family are also major supporters — also sponsor projects to advance religious pluralism in Israel, the Honey Foundation prides itself on being the only one dedicated to directly funding rabbis’ salaries.

Bill Lipsey explained the foundation’s practices from the perspective of a successful businessman (he is managing principal at a New York-based investment firm):

“A business person is by nature an optimist,” he said. “How can I service a population in a way that’s most successful, taking into account existing infrastructure, rules, and the establishment? You aim to provide what is not being provided well. We are trying to build up what is not being provided. That is the secret to long-term success.”

It was clear that those who participated embraced the goals of the foundation.

For her part, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, founder of ZION: An Eretz Israeli Congregation in Jerusalem and vice president of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly, said she was glad that she and her fellow rabbis will be helping to support each other.

Rabbi Dalia Marx, a professor at the Jerusalem branch of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the foundation was responding to her and others’ thirst “for holiness and community.” It is “strong community leadership,” she said, that will ensure that the mission “to build communities and break the Orthodox monopoly on religious services” can be successfully fulfilled.

Lipsey said his family worked on the conference for more than three years. He lamented that Americans do not even realize that the role of rabbis hired by congregants to head communities is not a full-time job in Israel. There are a lot of rabbis, Lipsey said, but very few lead communities as a result of being hired by their members. It is a part-time or volunteer role, not a person the community has a relationship with. He said this prevents Israelis from having more meaning and spirituality in their lives within the framework of a synagogue.

The Lipseys estimated that the 50 rabbis and community leaders funded by the foundation touch the lives of more than half a million Israelis. They hope to reach many more.

“The rabbis sitting together and hearing one another was the real accomplishment,” Lipsey said, adding that they plan to hold the conference annually. “Their experiencing one another was a huge victory. Different people mean different things when they say pluralism. They all saw examples of the other’s view.”

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