Robert Israel Lappin, a towering figure in Greater Boston Jewish philanthropy who created the first fully subsidized trip to Israel for teens, died last week. He was 98.
Lappin was a North Shore businessman who until recently owned Salem’s Shetland Park and other holdings, and was involved in most major Jewish charities in the Boston area. Over the years, he donated more than $30 million to Jewish nonprofits. His most lasting contribution may be the Youth to Israel Adventure, or Y2I, which has brought about 3,000 North Shore teens on subsidized trips to Israel since its inception 50 years ago. He also created the Lappin Foundation, which coordinates the Y2I trips, and runs Jewish educational programs year-round in Greater Boston.
“Lappin Foundation’s mission of enhancing Jewish identity across generations reflects Bob Lappin’s deep desire to nurture Jewish pride in our children,” said Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah L. Coltin in a statement. “He funded programs of Jewish living and learning that brought Judaism into the homes and into the hearts of a countless number of Jewish and interfaith families. He believed it wasn’t enough to teach about the beauty of Judaism; people needed the knowledge, tools and the authentic experience of all that Judaism offers.”
Rabbi Marc Baker, who grew up in Lynnfield and now serves as president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, also praised Lappin’s contributions to the Jewish community. “Bob Lappin was a visionary whose legacy will be felt on the North Shore and throughout our community for years to come,” said Baker. “Like so many, I was inspired by his passion for the Jewish people and deep commitments to strengthening Jewish identity and connection to Israel in our next generation.”
Howard Rich, a close personal friend and philanthropist, who went on his first trip to Israel with Lappin more than 40 years ago, also mourned his loss. “There was no one like him, truthfully. He was my mentor, my inspiration, he was brilliant, he was committed, he was a great leader of the community. I loved him. And I’m very saddened by losing him.”
Rich said Lappin led by example. “He had a great mind. I learned a great deal about Zionism from him. I learned a lot about fundraising, and the community. He was very inspirational, and I admired him tremendously. He was a great Zionist. I will dearly miss him.”
Philanthropist Arthur Epstein said Lappin also served as a role model for Jewish philanthropy. “He’s my hero. That’s how I got involved in so many things – because of him. Where would we be in the community without him? Look at all the programs he runs – he runs more programs than all of the temples put together,” said Epstein.
Lappin, who held numerous leadership posts throughout the years, was known for his deep passion of Israel and in the last several decades focused on bringing as many Jewish teens as he could to Israel to help solidify their Jewish identity.
“The secret to keep children Jewish is instilling Jewish pride,” he told the Journal in an interview. “You create pride through positive Jewish education and experiences. When you do that, you move the odds of staying Jewish in our favor. That’s what we are doing. I see it happening. I feel it happening. And I feel it’s replicable elsewhere.”
Lappin grew up in Salem, and faced anti-Semitism as a child. “I was abused many times, beaten up for being Jewish. I lived in physical fear,” he said.
Lappin went on to Dartmouth College, and after he graduated in 1943, he served as a Naval officer for four years on the U.S.S. Cecil, a relief communication ship that saw action in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In 1943 he also met Mimi Zaiger, at the former Preston Beach Inn in Swampscott. “It was love at first sight,” he said. Three years later they married, and Lappin took a job at her father’s automobile accessory manufacturing business in Lynn. The couple moved to Marblehead, where their children, Andy, Peter, and Nancy were born. About a decade later, the family settled in Swampscott, where they lived in a house by the ocean. After 72 years of marriage, Mimi Lappin died in 2018 at the age of 92.
Lappin’s first major financial success almost didn’t occur. While working with his father-in-law, he decided to create and market an electric car polisher in 1950. The same week that he prepared to ship the product, he learned that self-polishing car wax was being stocked in stores.
“The market for our car polisher evaporated, and I was thinking about what to do, and I came up with an epiphany, which was to put a brush on the machine and make a long three-piece handle and sell it to the housewares trade instead of the automotive trade, and we established the Shetland Company to do that,” he said. “It was a floor polisher. That worked out great – we had some patents, and the important thing was that it was accepted by all the department and discount stores across the U.S., and the company entered a period of new growth.”
Lappin went on to purchase real estate across the country, and in 1958, he bought the old Pequot Mills property in Salem and began rehabbing it. Eventually, Lappin’s Shetland Park became one of the largest commercial real estate parcels in Salem. He sold it last year.
Over the year’s Jewish education, and Israel remained his major philanthropic focus. In 1967, Lappin went on his first trip to Israel. “I was totally overwhelmed by the wonderful things that I saw there,” he told the Journal in 2017. In 1971, he decided to create a program that would subsidy trips to Israel for North Shore Jewish teens. He called the program Youth to Israel, or Y2I. “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.”
Initially, the trip was partially subsidized, and more than 20 years ago, Lappin decided to offer a full subsidy.
Lappin was also president of Lappin Foundation, and was a founding member of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. He also received doctorates from Salem State University and Gordon College.
Lappin is survived by his son Andy Lappin and his wife Diane; his son Peter Lappin; his daughter Nancy Lappin; and his cherished grandchildren: Lauren Sarah Lappin, Danielle Faith Lappin, Alexander Brett Lappin, Jacklyn Sarah Lappin, Matthew Alexander Lappin, and Benjamin Poser.
Burial was private.