Jewish education is rabbi’s lifelong focus


Rabbi Bernard Lipnick has had an illustrious and deeply influential career first as an assistant rabbi, then senior rabbi, and most recently, as rabbi emeritus at Congregation B’nai Amoona.

However, Rabbi Lipnick, 81, did not set out to be a pulpit rabbi.

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He saw his true calling in Jewish education, which he said led him to follow “parallel tracks” of Judaic and secular studies while he was growing up in Baltimore. So, Rabbi Lipnick attended public schools, along with religious school.

In keeping with those “parallel tracks,” he attended Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with noted Biblical archaeologist Dr. William Foxwell Albright, the head of the school’s Semitics Department, and he also studied simultaneously at the Baltimore Hebrew College.

“I ended up at the end of my college career, with not just a B.A., but a bachelors of Hebrew Literature and also a teaching certificate,” he said.

After graduating from college, he said, “I decided that I was interested mostly in Jewish education.” “But in those days, there was no degree available in Jewish education like there is today. So what I decided to do was to get the best Jewish training that I could get and get the best secular education training I could get, and bring them together.”

The best liberal Jewish education he could find was at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

“I applied and was accepted and went on to earn my rabbinical ordination, even though it was not my intention at that time to be a pulpit rabbi,” he said. “I became a rabbi — that was my title — but I didn’t want to do rabbinic work. What I wanted to do was Jewish education.”

Rabbi Lipnick said he always had an interest in “informal Jewish education,” including Jewish camping, and worked in Jewish camps around the country.

After he was ordained by the JTS, he worked at a Hebrew-language camp in Wisconsin, where he found a special affinity to the Midwest.

“What struck me more than anything else was the contrast in the kids. The kids on the East Coast had certain characteristics, and they were quite different from the kids in Wisconsin. And I found the kids in Wisconsin to be much more to my liking, and the kinds of kids I’d like to work with,” Lipnick said.

It was around this time that Lipnick had applied to serve as a military chaplain during the Korean War. “I was in the Navy for a short time in World War II, but I always felt guilty that I didn’t serve in World War II. I had a theological deferment,” he said. “When the Korean War came along, I saw an opportunity for me to make amends,” Rabbi Lipnick said. However, high blood pressure kept Lipnick from being selected for the service.

“When I was turned down from the service, I was devastated,” he recalled. He said a friend knew of an opening for an assistant rabbi at B’nai Amoona.

“Not having anything better to do, I decided to interview,” Rabbi Lipnick said. He noted that he had met two girls from St. Louis at the Wisconsin camp, Libby Selzer and Estelle Goldberg. “I said to myself, ‘If I end up working with kids like Estelle and Libby, that wouldn’t be so bad.'”

Rabbi Lipnick made the trek to University City, and interviewed for the position.

“When I came to the interview, I said to Rabbi Abraham E. Halpern, ‘I do not want to be an assistant rabbi. I’m interested in an educational directorship.’ He said, ‘But you are a rabbi. Would you fill in for me, for instance, if I’m on vacation?’ I said ‘Certainly. I’m a nice person; if you ask me to, I will,'” Rabbi Lipnick recalled.

He said Rabbi Halpern was “elated with the idea that someone would come and not want to be the assistant, but just be the person to run the school.”

Rabbi Lipnick, a bachelor at the time, even took up an offer from the Halperns to live with them until he became settled.

So Rabbi Lipnick headed the religious school, which at the time had between 700 and 800 students. And he said that his judgment about the Midwest children he taught in the Wisconsin camp was a correct one. “It’s been verified over and over again: the Midwest is much different. And if I’m going to work with kids, these are the kids I want to work with,” he said.

As time passed, Lipnick was named associate rabbi. “I had served so many rabbinic functions over the years that the congregation began to regard me as a second rabbi of the congregation, and I guess I began to regard myself in the same way. So I did accept the title of associate rabbi, although it didn’t change what I did, or my responsibilities,” he said.

Rabbi Lipnick was with the congregation for 11 years, when the senior rabbi, Rabbi Halpern, died.

“When he died, the question became should the congregation get a new rabbi or should I become the rabbi of the congregation?” Rabbi Lipnick said.

“I was still interested in education. That was to be my focus. But I was persuaded that I could do probably more effective educational work as the rabbi of the congregation, than as the director of education,” he said. “And so it proved to be. I accepted the rabbinate of the congregation; I became the senior rabbi. And whatever innovative educational programs I came up with, it was during that time.”

Rabbi Lipnick said the congregation built a preschool, which he imagined would be the precursor to a pluralistic, liberal Jewish day school. It turned out to be the foundations for what would become the Solomon Schechter Day School of St. Louis, which is located on the Congregation B’nai Amoona campus (of which Rabbi Lipnick is the namesake) in West County.

“B’nai Amoona was largely responsible for the school and I was deeply involved,” he said. “Nobody does anything by himself. There are always many, many people involved in such a project, but that’s an example of if I had only been educational director, I’m not sure I would have had the time or the prestige necessary to found a whole new institution.”

In fact, the current location of B’nai Amoona was a 33-acre tract that the congregation under Rabbi Lipnick originally purchased for informal Jewish educational experiences, including camping. The congregation began two camping programs, which are still running and are now called the Alfred Fleishman Summer Camps.

However, Rabbi Lipnick said one of proudest moments was the institution of a program during the 1970s that sent teenagers to live in Israel (in Nir Galim, a moshav) in the homes of Israelis, for two months of religious education. That program would end up as the topic for Rabbi Lipnick’s, dissertation at Washington University, which earned him a doctorate in education.

“Hundreds of our kids went through it, and it was a highly innovative and highly successful educational program,” he said. “It was really one of the most influential educational programs I have witnessed.”

Maxine Weil, director of the Commission for Conservative Jewish Education at the Central Agency for Jewish Education, was one of the B’nai Amoona teenagers who went on the Israel program, and she said that the trip was a turning point in her life.

“When I came back I was totally engaged in Judaism and Conservative Judaism, and I decided I wanted to keep kosher and I got very involved in the youth group,” Weil said.

In fact, Weil said Rabbi Lipnick was one the people who inspired her to become a Jewish educator.

Now Lipnick is in his second career at B’nai Amoona, having retired in 1991 from the congregation to move west with his wife, Harriet, to California, where Lipnick built by hand a home on the forested side of a mountain, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. After Lipnick encountered health problems, the couple moved back to St. Louis in 2003, where Lipnick filled in as rabbi before the new senior rabbi, Rabbi Carnie Rose came to the congregation. Now Lipnick is still active as rabbi emeritus, and his interest in education has not wavered. He is still an ex-officio member of the Schechter Board of Trustees, and he has been involved with the planning for a new Jewish day high school.

Milton Movitz, longtime B’nai Amoona congregant, said Lipnick has become “a legend and a strong voice in our community…When he talks, people listen.”

Movitz said Lipnick has had a profound impact on the community. “He spearheaded the opening of Soloman Schechter,” he said. “He is a strong advocate of Israel snd Jewish education.”

Movitz said he has known Lipnick for more than 35 years, and that Lipnick officiated at Movitz’s wedding to his wife, Galia, almost 25 years ago.

Weil also noted that Rabbi Lipnick was one of the driving forces behind not only the Solomon Schechter school, but also the Central Agency for Jewish Education.

“He [Rabbi Lipnick] is such an amazing visionary,” Weil said. “Not only has he influenced B’nai Amoona and the generations there, but he has also played a tremendous role influencing Conservative Jewish education in the entire city of St. Louis.”

“He’s not only a rabbi. In some ways, he’s like a father figure,” she said, noting that Rabbi Lipnick has gone above and beyond in being there for her family.

“He’s become woven into my life on so many levels, and I don’t think that I’m the exception,” she said. “I think he’s been like that for a lot of people in St. Louis, and that is why he is so well loved and respected.”