Born in 1922, a native of Salem and a graduate of Dartmouth College, Robert Israel Lappin served as an officer in the United States Navy during World War II, participating in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the war, Mr. Lappin was in the small appliance manufacturing business for 25 years as president of the Shetland Company, which employed 1,100 people at the time of its sale in 1968.
Mr. Lappin began acquiring and managing real estate in 1947. His portfolio of over ten million square feet of industrial space was sold in 1986 and 1987, except for Shetland Park, a waterfront industrial complex in Salem, which Mr. Lappin continues to own and manage. Mr. Lappin is President of the Lappin Foundation, which funds Jewish living and learning programs and interfaith outreach programs, all free of charge.
An avid chess player, fitness enthusiast, and deeply devoted Jew, Mr. Lappin resides in Swampscott and Palm Beach, Florida. He and his wife Marion have three children and six grandchildren.
When did you develop the idea that all Jewish teens should be offered free Youth To Israel trips?
I was president of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore from 1967 through 1972, and in 1970 I became very concerned about assimilation as a result of intermarriage, and I convinced myself that the way to enhance Jewish identity and to thereby help to solve this problem would be to have kids go to Israel during their teen years.
Did the idea that those trips should be subsidized occur to you at that point, as well?
It developed over time. I wrote a letter to the federation’s board and asked the federation to participate in the cost, which they agreed to do, and continued to do for many years, up until 1996. So it was partially subsidized during those years, and it was producing about 25 participants a year. At that point I decided to make it a fully subsidized trip to increase participation. Since then, it’s averaged about 100 teenagers a year. This July we’re sending 111 students to Israel.
So since 1970 you’ve had a sense that there was a changing dynamic that threatened the sense of Jewish identity in this country?
Yes. At the time, most people were not so concerned about the problem, as the percentage was small. But it was growing.
But you were seeing something 45 years ago that the rest of us are still struggling to come to terms with.
Were you concerned with Jewish identity or with the well-being of Israel.
It was concern over Jewish identity that was my primary focus.
You were way ahead of the curve. Even now, people are still struggling to come to terms with what you saw nearly half a century ago!
It’s true, with all due modesty. It was an early vision that unfortunately has turned out to be a reality that threatens our community.
Have you had to adjust your vision along the way, or do you feel like you got it right way back then?
I think I got it right, but let me digress. My first trip to Israel was in 1967. I was totally overwhelmed by the wonderful things that I saw there, and I quickly put these ideas together. And now, as I see it, Israel has become a light to the nations. Unfortunately, there are so many nations that are blind to the light, but certainly Israel is a creation that exceeds any reasonable expectations. Out of bare sand it has emerged with a wonderful economy, it is one of the happiest and healthiest places in the world, but its economic prowess is beyond imagination. So, it’s there for the taking – when teens go to Israel, almost all of them return home with a strong and positive Jewish identity, whereas when they leave on their trips there is hardly any Jewish identity at all.
Is there any hope that Birthright Israel, which has a similar mission but targets older kids, might adopt some Lappin Foundation ideas?
Debbie Coltin (Executive Director at Lappin Foundation) and I are working as hard as we can to persuade Birthright Israel to lower their age of eligibility from 18 to 16 so communities across the country would be able to do what we are doing. This is particularly important in light of the horrible BDS movement that is sweeping through academia. When our kids go to Israel they learn about advocacy so when they go to college they’re able to cope with the anti-Semitism and the negativity that springs from this BDS movement.
Another great effort of Debbie’s is to spread the word in Greater Boston about what we’re doing in our area. I know Barry Shrage is highly positive about that, and this is among the reasons at this point that I’m disappointed Shrage is leaving because I feel that we have his support in this effort.
Is one of the big problems the wrestling match over funding?
It’s been a great frustration of mine that more communities across the United States haven’t replicated what we do. Before (Bernie) Madoff, my foundation was partnering with about 15 other communities in creating Youth to Israel Programs, and we were making great progress, but we have not been able to resume those partnerships that we were creating with those communities. I’m not sure why, as its almost universally acknowledged that what we’re doing is the way to do it in terms not only of Jewish advocacy but of Jewish continuity, so why it has not resulted in greater replication is a consequence, I think, of many things, but primarily one of funding.
Are you saying Lappin Foundation funding made those partnerships possible?
Yes. We weren’t providing complete funding, we were partnering, but it was working, but without our funding it gradually fell apart.