Right-Wing Rabbi Broadcasts Torah Even to Christians: Lapin Seeks `Accessible Judaism'

Article excerpt

MERCER ISLAND, Wash. - When Rabbi Daniel Ephraim Lapin moved to this upscale Seattle suburb with his wife, Susan, and seven children five years ago this month, he was without a synagogue. In that time, he created what he calls a more accessible Judaism, in which the rabbi resembles a spiritual director and father of a large family. Gone were the membership fees of a typical synagogue and the duties of a paid rabbi.

Instead, Rabbi Lapin, 50, prefers to call himself a "Torah teacher," holding forth on Jewish law and customs during Saturday afternoon meetings around his dining room table. He started these meetings three years ago with three persons.

A few months ago, 30 Jews are gathered in his dining room. The rabbi is seated at the head of a long dining room table, before him a Bible and stack of commentaries. His listeners snack on slices of pineapple, bowls of chips and salsa, and bottles of wine and vodka. Many of the lights in the house are on; being Orthodox, the rabbi's family holds to a strict reading of the Bible that interprets turning lights on or off as working on the Sabbath.

One of the guests is Michael Medved, host of "Sneak Previews," the New York Post's chief film critic and a close friend of the rabbi. Mr. Medved moved his family to Mercer Island last year after snagging a job as an afternoon talk-show host on Seattle's KVI-AM radio. Rabbi Lapin also hosts a twice-weekly syndicated show on KVI called "Rabbi's Roundtable" that reaches 100,000 listeners.

"Gut shabbos [Happy Sabbath]," the guests say.

"Shabbat shalom [Sabbath peace]," the rabbi responds. Most of the men are wearing yarmulkes, and there's almost a gaiety in the air. Children scamper about.

The rabbi came to Mercer Island from the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif. After deciding not to accept a salary from the Venice synagogue, the rabbi supported his family with the proceeds from a real estate business.

The synagogue was a success, but the firm lost an estimated $2.3 million and went into bankruptcy when the state's real estate market collapsed in the late 1980s, taking much of the rabbi's savings - as well as that of some of his congregation - along with it.

The rabbi went on a yearlong sabbatical in 1992, during which he decided to settle in Washington state.

He had already founded Toward Tradition, a nonprofit organization devoted to injecting Judeo-Christian values into American culture. It became known as a Jewish version of the Christian Coalition and caught the attention of such political luminaries as Bob Dole, Dan Quayle, former Education Secretary William Bennett and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

When the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, the rabbi's star rose higher. Last year, he spoke at the Republican National Convention, where he offered a closing prayer.

The fact that many Jews don't fall in line with the rabbi's conservatism doesn't faze him. The rabbi has not become involved in the local orthodox rabbis' coalition, and when the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith last year criticized the Navy for sponsoring a Christian gathering in November, Toward Tradition lambasted the ADL for "anti-Christian bigotry."

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich was being attacked last year for ethics violations, the rabbi dedicated his Dec. 24 afternoon show on KVI to defending the Georgia Republican. On the same show, he invited listeners to observe the Christian meaning of the season instead of more politically correct sentiments.

"This is no `Happy Kwanzaa,' no `Happy Holidays' or `Season's Greetings;' it's `Merry Christmas,' if you please," the rabbi said, and KVI's phone began to ring.

"Merry Christmas, rabbi!" callers trilled. This is the man the Seattle Times called "a charming Torah scholar who loves fundamentalist Christians," who has made no secret of his belief that conservative Christians cleave closer to Torah teachings than do liberal Jews. …