Rabbi Yossi Lipsker opened Chabad of the North Shore in 1992 in Swampscott and since then has expanded to Peabody, Lynn and Everett. Lipsker is the son of a Chabad rabbi, and grew up in Pennsylvania. He attended Yeshiva High School in Pittsburgh, followed by two years of study in London and Boston – and also did internships in California, Nebraska, England and Belarus. He received his rabbinic ordination in the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn. He is married to Layah Lipsker, and their children are Yaakov, Eliyahu, Adina (and her husband Moishe Wilhelm), Sheva, Batya, and Michali.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and your family background?
I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. My parents are shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and this was an integral part of my upbringing. I always knew intuitively that this was my path. Though my folks are in their late seventies and early eighties, they have lived and worked there for close to 60 years. My dad has never formally retired and is still an active rabbi and teacher. Our home was an open door to roving charity collectors, and a home away from home for an entire cast of down-on-their-luck Vietnam veterans, Holocaust survivors, Russian emigres, and many homesick Israelis. They all found an open door, a warm meal, and a listening ear.
You were a yeshiva student in Boston when you fell in love with the North Shore – can you tell us how about that?
It feels like there was a lot of synchronicity at work “behind the scenes” – seemingly random events conspiring, to bring us together with the North Shore. One of the first days that we were in the yeshiva in Brookline an older gentleman walked in to the study hall with Rabbi Ciment of blessed memory. I recognized him at once – it was Mendel Kaufman.He would spend Shabbat as a guest in our home when we were younger. He owned many amusement parks that would travel across the country setting up shop in the parking lots of shopping centers. He would spend Shabbat with local Chabad families. Mendel Feller, my best friend since I was12, was also a student at the Boston Rabbinical Academy. Kaufman would stay in his home in St. Paul, Minnesota as well.
In the early 1990s, Kaufman helped run a tiny synagogue out of Harry Fielding’s living room on Seaview Avenue in Marblehead. He had learned of the arrival of the new rabbinical students and was looking for two volunteers to come to run services, teach classes, and do some holiday programs. As soon as he saw Mendy and I his face lit up with Joy. The rest is history. We went there every single Shabbat for two years. I knew then that this was where I needed to be. As a result, I feel like the North Shore is so much deeper than the beautiful place to live that it is. I see it as a place that has been etched into my soul and become part of my spiritual DNA.
You are the first Hasidic rabbi to have a congregation north of Boston. What made you choose the North Shore and Swampscott, in particular?
I feel like the North Shore chose us in a strange spiritual way. Aside from already being familiar with Swampscott and Marblehead, we felt that this was the logical place to begin setting down roots as it had the largest concentration of Jews living on the North Shore. We chose Swampscott simply because we felt it straddled Lynn and Marblehead and would position us in the center.
When you arrived in Swampscott in 1992, you knew few people in the area. The North Shore already had a number of temples. Why were you confident that people would embrace Chabad, and what did you offer that other branches of Judaism didn’t?
I think our approach was unique in the way it was very geared to fostering personal relationships and that was something of an anomaly in the community at the time. It seemed to resonate. We opened a Hebrew School that was fun and upbeat way before its time. It was amazing for parents to hear their children nudging them to “hurry up or we’ll be late for Hebrew school.” We came with the Hasidic warmth, and mystical joy that was central to our religious upbringing and the optimistic non-judgmental vision of the Rebbe. Of course our youth didn’t hurt.
You started off with a small shul and Hebrew School above a convenience store in Swampscott. Since then, Chabad of the North Shore has grown – you have a large shul in Swampscott, and branches in Peabody, Lynn and Everett. In addition, you have a summer camp and have also built a mikvah in Swampscott. How do you explain your growth and popularity, and the support you’ve received?
I attribute any success we have had to numerous factors. The commitment and dedication of my wife Layah for agreeing to move here with me was instrumental in the founding and growth of the organization. The love and support and pride of our children was a huge factor; growing up in this way had many rewards but it can be challenging and frustrating. The looming and very much larger-than-life spiritual presence of the Rebbe grows even more inspirational. I feel his presence as a constant guiding light and hear his voice discouraging complacency and encouraging constant growth.
None of this would have been possible without the extraordinary generosity of our tzedakah partners. Each bring an extraordinary level of devotion, passion, wisdom, and a shared love of the land of Israel, the Torah, and the Jewish people. I would explain the support we receive by pointing to the unique and very close personal friendship, mutual respect and love for each and every one of our supporters. We never saw this as fundraising per se more like a sacred partnership geared toward the betterment and continuity of Klal Yisroel. A bond nurtured by learning and the sharing of peak Jewish communal and personal moments. Most importantly, we see each of our donors as supporters, and are cognizant of the fact that each and every gift, large or small, is integral to the vitality of our work.
This has been a challenging year for all because of Covid. It has upended so much of traditional synagogue life – from communal prayer to Hebrew School to burying our dead. As a rabbi, what are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face this year of COVID-19, and how have you dealt with them?
Overall, despite the hardships – and there were many – I realize that I have come out of this with a “more real” level of gratitude. Another thing I notice, and this might be good but maybe a little not so good, is that my level of intensity has spiked, as if everything has been coated over with additional layers of urgency. A lot of people struggled with a fear of dying and that hit very close to home. For me, that was exacerbated by the high volume of burials I had to perform. I guess it’s positive in the ways it pushes us to focus on unfinished business which in truth is every second of life. If that pushes me to be more purpose-driven, then I’ll take it.
What’s your message to people who are struggling during the pandemic?
We have all struggled in different ways but we lived to tell the tale. And that is a big deal of course. Having said that, I continue to share a message of hopefulness and positivity. I believe that the fact that we’re still here is G-d’s way of letting us know that the universe requires our presence.
Is there one Hasidic principle that motivates you each day?
Tracht Gutte Vet Zayn gutt! Think positive and it will all come together in the end! (Obviously it won’t happen without putting in the hard work as well!)
You love to sing and pray. What is the importance of prayer and song and how does that nourish the soul?
When I sing, especially during prayer – but it could be when I’m driving as well – I release whatever it is that might be holding me down, and I am suddenly free, and lost in the song. During these moments, the song itself becomes an act of prayer as well. Additionally, Hasidic melodies are very grounding for me and serve as an anchor and reminder of my purpose that can’t be achieved solely through study and meditation.
When you’re not in synagogue how do you like to best spend your time?
I love riding my motorcycle around the North Shore and enjoying the smell and sight of the ocean. If I have a moment to myself, I will steal away to a used bookstore and get lost there. I love to read but do most of that on Shabbat evening and afternoon.