US rabbi wants to bring pluralism and tolerance from Chicago to the Negev
Rabbi Asher Lopatin
David Ben-Gurion’s dream for the Negev was one of beauty, Ariel Sharon’s was one of security, and Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s is one of environmental friendliness, egalitarianism and nonjudgmentalism.
Lopatin, the rabbi of Cong. Anshe Sholom, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, will leave the Windy City in 2011 for the dry air of Carmit, located 15 kilometers northeast of Beersheba.
He would settle there now, except Carmit does not yet exist.
One of the towns that former prime minister Sharon had planned for the Negev to achieve a strategic presence near the Green Line, Carmit quickly became a project of the Jewish National Fund and the Or Movement in their quest to make settling in the Negev a viable option for American Jews.
“If you bring 200 such families to a place like Carmit, people will come here – not necessarily for the idealism, but for quality of life,” JNF Executive Officer Russell Robinson told The Jerusalem Post in 2006.
But since then, Lopatin, who became involved in Carmit through the JNF, has shifted the focus back to the idealism.
“A number of years ago, Carmit might have been envisioned as an affluent community in the Negev,” Lopatin said. “But we’re now focusing on the diversity aspect.
“That’s the way we’re going to attract Americans to the Negev, by saying, ‘you are pioneers, building a pluralistic, diverse community.’ Religious, non-religious, differently religious, Israelis, Americans, everyone mixed together.”
Lopatin, along with Daniel and Rosie Mattio, soon founded the Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund (CIPF), “to really market this to North Americans as a pluralistic and diverse community.”
Lopatin is taking a central role in forming the elements of Carmit that will go a long way to ensuring its pluralistic, nonjudgmental atmosphere, including its synagogue and school.
“God willing there will be dozens of synagogues that will sprout up in Carmit,” Lopatin said. “But the initial one that is funded – and I’m planning to work full-time as a community rabbi at that synagogue – is going to be nonjudgmental and pluralistic with an egal-Orthodox minyan… If some people are driving on Shabbat, I will give them the warmest “Gut Shabbos” when they pass by in their cars.”
Carmit’s school will be based on Meytarim, an education network that uses Jewish law and tradition as a starting point, but permits pluralistic expression of students’ Judaism.
“The school will really set the tone for the community,” Lopatin said.
“In Efrat, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin wanted a pluralistic community, but the first school they started was a wonderful, typical mamlachti-dati [national-religious] school. That set the tone for the neighborhood, which is wonderful; everything’s good there. But it’s not a pluralistic tone.”
Lopatin and CIPF have also focused on the environmental aspects of the city to attract Carmit’s potential residents.
“Some people may think, ‘you’re bringing more people to the Negev, it’s going to tax the environment,'” Lopatin said. “And in some ways it does, definitely. It’s a very sensitive environment.
“But we’re bringing the type of people to the Negev that care about the environment, that want sustainable living. I think that in the long term, we’re really going to be the best thing for the environment in the Negev.”
Carmit is drawing the attention of a wide range of people who identify with Lopatin’s vision of tolerance and pluralism.
“The fact that it’s not Baka or the German Colony – that it’s not in the heart of Israel – therefore, the kind of people that are going to schlep out to the Negev are that type,” he said.
“The community where I am now, in Chicago, is different because it’s urban. But it’s a mixture of singles and couples and families and older people. And I really want that [for Carmit] and that vitality.”
Now that the vision is in place, all that’s missing is the city itself. Tractors currently stand in the place where feet will soon walk on sidewalks.
“I’ve spoken from the pulpit about being out by 2011,” Lopatin said. “So either the houses in Carmit will be up by then, or maybe for a year we might rent in areas nearby, whether Meitar or Beersheba.
“But the home will exist in 2011; the houses just might not be there until 2012.”