SALEM – On the first Yahrzeit for Robert Israel Lappin this month, the life and legacy of the Jewish philanthropist and businessman will be honored in a virtual hour-long celebration.
Lappin, the former owner of Shetland Park in Salem, died on April 3, 2020, at age 98. Over the years, he donated millions to Jewish nonprofits and served as a role model for Jewish philanthropy.
Lappin is best known for starting the subsidized Youth to Israel Adventure trip for teens to visit Israel and creating the Salem-based Lappin Foundation to oversee Y2I and other programs. The innovative trip will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Y2I epitomizes the foundation’s mission to enhance Jewish identity across generations.
The virtual one-hour event honoring Lappin will take place on March 21 at 3 p.m. on Zoom and is free and open to the public. The featured speaker will be the world-renowned Jewish leader, Soviet refusenik, Israeli politician, and human rights activist Natan Sharansky, the immediate past chairman of the Zionist Jewish Agency for Israel.
The event also will celebrate Lappin’s crowning achievement, the creation of Y2I. Over the past 50 years, the trip has sent approximately 3,000 teens to Israel, where they could explore their Jewish identity. The trip was originally called Let’s Go Israel when Lappin started it in 1971. The trip is meant to instill Jewish pride and identity in teens through education and experience.
Y2I is overseen by the Lappin Foundation, along with its many other programs for children and adults. The trip was grounded last year due to travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the foundation is planning on holding it this year during the December school break. An information session is planned for March 4 at 7 p.m. on Zoom (go to y2i.org for the link).
Lappin, who grew up in Salem and attended Dartmouth College, went into battle on a relief Naval communications ship in the Pacific during World War II. He lived in Marblehead and later in a home by the ocean in Swampscott with his late wife of 72 years, Mimi (Zaiger), who died in 2018 at age 92. The couple raised three children, Andy, Peter and Nancy, and had six grandchildren.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community was not able to gather to mourn his passing last year.
Only seven people were able to gather at his funeral and the community did not get the opportunity to hear the “beautiful eulogy” of Temple Emanu-El Rabbi David Meyer, said Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin.
It’s a tradition to honor someone on their one-year Yahrzeit on the Jewish calendar, which for Lappin falls on March 21 (8 Nisan).
Those scheduled to give short reflections on his legacy at the virtual event include family and community members. Speakers will include his son, Andy, Rabbi David Meyer, and Marvin Wilson, a retired Gordon College professor.
“Bob was very close to the evangelical community,” said Coltin. Wilson will “speak about the incredible hand of friendship Bob extended to the evangelical Christian community.”
To honor the legacy of Y2I, there will be speakers who went on the trip, including Brad and Becca Sontz, said Coltin, who herself went on the third trip in 1973.
“A true mensch,” was how Brad Sontz of Marblehead, a member of the Jewish Journal’s Board of Overseers, described Lappin. Sontz said he went on what was then called Let’s Go Israel in 1983, and his wife went on the trip three years later. His three siblings also went on the trip. Back then, the trip was six weeks long, Sontz said, and from it he has made about a dozen lifelong friends who regularly get together. This has translated into virtual meetings during the pandemic.
“There’s always a core of six guys that are always on the Zoom call,” said Sontz. To say they are connected does not do justice to the bond they share from the trip.
“Not just connected, intertwined,” Sontz said. “Our lives, we attend life-cycle mitzvahs, every life cycle event.” That includes bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals. Two of the Sontz’s children went on Y2I and his youngest, Jack, was supposed to go this past summer before the trip was canceled due to the pandemic. He’s hoping his son will have a chance to go in December.
The trip had a profound effect on him. Sontz grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, but the trip subconsciously worked to make him think about marrying a Jewish woman and raising his family Jewish.
“There is something completely surreal about climbing Mount Masada and having your friend reach their hand down and pull you up that last step,” Sontz said. As an adult, Sontz has been involved in Jewish causes, served on boards, and chaired events. His family grew up with Lappin programming, including PJ Library and Rekindle Shabbat.
“It shaped my Jewish life,” Sontz said.
Other speakers will include Lappin Foundation Board of Advisors member Elana Zabar of Swampscott, a senior at the University of New Hampshire who has long participated in Lappin programs, including Y2I.
Another young speaker will be Board of Advisors member Rachel Ellis of Peabody, who Coltin said is a leader in the Jewish community and served as president of the Student Government Association at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. During her tenure, the UMass Hillel House was spray painted with the word “Palestine” in Arabic last April on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lappin’s granddaughter, Jackie Lappin, 19, a student at Southern Methodist University, also will speak along with philanthropist Howard Rich, who serves on the Board of Directors of the Lappin Foundation and was a close friend of Lappin.
“It’s a celebration of Bob’s life and legacy,” said Rich, a life member of the Jewish Journal’s Board of Overseers. He lamented they couldn’t sit shiva for Lappin back in April because of the pandemic “so we are going to do this, it will be a celebration of his life.” Rich described Lappin as a leader of the Jewish community whose philanthropy continues through the Lappin Foundation and its many programs.
Rich went to Israel a number of times with Lappin, the first trip being in 1982 during the Lebanon War, when Israel crossed the border into Southern Lebanon to root out the PLO. They arrived two weeks after the fighting started, and Rich recalled they were among the first groups of Jews to get into Lebanon after the fighting started.
“The country pulled together and you could just feel it in the air,” Rich said of the sight of Israeli soldiers hitchhiking north, and flatbed trucks carrying armored vehicles to the battlefield. Lappin, Rich said, was “very smart, very committed to Israel and very dedicated to the North Shore community, and this event will be a great tribute to him.”