JUNE 20, 2005
Daniel Lapin is an unlikely business guru. He doesn't have an MBA or
a distinguished record of financial wizardry. His largest venture
into the world of commerce, running a firm that traded in second
mortgages, ended in bankruptcy court, with Lapin owing nearly $3
million. Yet this history hasn't stopped Lapin from dispensing
business wisdom, and it hasn't stopped corporations from paying him
thousands of dollars to give motivational speeches. That's because
Lapin draws on another source of authority when making his
presentations to executives: his yarmulke.In addition to his career as a speaker, Lapin is an orthodox rabbi
descended from a long line of Talmudic scholars. So it is doubly
startling when he begins presentations with remarks that you might
expect from a devoted watcher of Al Jazeera: "I don't need to tell
you that, historically, Jews have been pretty good with money." He
then proceeds to tell his audience how they can earn money just
like a Jew. "You don't have to be Jewish to have access to the
lessons of wealth that have been part of traditional Jewish culture
for centuries," he wrote in his 2002 book, Thou Shall Prosper: Ten
Commandments for Making Money.
While the Lapin family has long specialized in churning out rabbis,
it has only recently expanded into the production of rabbinic
business advisers. Daniel's brother and fellow rabbi, David, has a
company called Strategic Business Ethics (SBE). (His firm cleverly
bucks millennia of Judeo-Christian theology, which has viewed
ethics as an end to itself, not as strategy.) On its website, SBE
trumpets: "Rabbi Lapin holds audiences spellbound as he shares his
knowledge and experience of life at the intersection of clashing
worlds: ancient Kabalistic wisdom and modern business solutions."
Indeed, over the years, Daniel and David Lapin have shared their
knowledge and experience with quite an impressive set of audiences,
including Nordstrom, Amway, Boeing--and, most notably, the
Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The Lapin brothers are the Dr. Frasier Cranes of the Abramoff
scandal--bit actors who appear so often that they deserve their own
series. It was Daniel who first introduced Abramoff to House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay, making a match that went on to
transgress congressional ethics codes and now stands at the center
of Senate inquiries. When Abramoff opened the Eshkol Academy, a
Maryland yeshiva funded by his unwitting Indian tribe clients, David
served as the school's dean. And, thanks to Abramoff--hardly the
man, it turns out, that you would want vouching for your ethics
consulting firm--David brought ancient Kabalistic wisdom to bear in
the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (cnmi), one of the
lobbyist's benefactors. The Marianas' government paid the rabbi's
firm $1.2 million.
While the Lapins might not loom as large in the narrative of the
scandal as Ralph Reed or Grover Norquist, they help resolve one of
its essential mysteries. How could Abramoff, an ostensibly pious
man who opened kosher restaurants and donated vast sums to
charities, justify bilking nave clients and trampling lobbying
laws? What kind of rabbis, in other words, would provide guidance to
a man like that? The Lapin brothers, that's who.
Early this spring, I met Daniel Lapin at a Washington hotel, where
he was addressing a meeting of the Family Research Council, a
Christian conservative group. Lapin is a bearded man with a South
African accent, which distinguished him from the preachers milling
about the lobby. To obtain an interview, I had pledged not to ask
him about Abramoff, and, in our conversation, he volunteered only a
few indirect comments on the scandal. "Everyone--you, me, and
Jack--are a complex mix of strengths and flaws," he said solemnly.
But Lapin was less reticent when the subject turned to himself.
Placing his gray fedora on a table, he began to describe the windy
route that led him to that day's evangelical gathering.
After growing up in Johannesburg and studying at a Jerusalem
yeshiva, Lapin, in his twenties, followed a wave of white
emigration from South Africa and landed in Los Angeles. He quickly
grasped the opportunities for spiritual entrepreneurship in his new
country. With the film critic Michael Medved, Lapin restored a
superannuated synagogue on the Venice Beach boardwalk, and the
congregation soon acquired cachet. Barbra Streisand's son celebrated
his bar mitzvah there. (Lapin later served as a technical adviser
on Yentl.) And, although his death indefinitely postponed the
occasion, the nonagenarian billionaire Armand Hammer had planned to
hold his own belated bar mitzvah at Lapin's synagogue. As a profile
of Lapin in Eastside Week put it, the synagogue "grew quickly into
a glamorous and intense place."
But, after a decade, the community began to fray. Congregants
complained about Lapin's authoritarian style. "[S]ome unorthodox
practices generally associated with cults turn up in account after
account of life at [the synagogue]," the Jerusalem Report alleged
in 1991. There were also financial problems. Lapin had declined a
salary for his rabbinic duties, preferring to make a living from
real estate deals. But his investments, some of which included
congregants' capital, performed poorly. A month before his firm
filed for bankruptcy, he resigned his pulpit and relocated to
Mercer Island, Washington.
Grasping for a new mission, Lapin thought back to his rationale for
moving stateside. On a previous road trip across the United States,
he had noticed 19 towns named Salem. "I also started seeing all
these Jerichos, Hebrons, and Zions, and a slew of other Hebrew
names. I called home--in those days, a transatlantic call wasn't
what it is now-- and I said, 'It's amazing.'" He couldn't believe
the philo-Semitism of Middle America--evangelicals who didn't just
tolerate Jews, but actually adored them. ("The Bible Belt is the
Jewish safety belt" is one of his mantras.) So why, he wondered,
did Jews ungratefully persist in complaining about prayer in
schools and crches in public squares?
Around the time he left Los Angeles, he started a group called
Toward Tradition--turning the title of Michael J. Fox's Back to the
Future on its head. Although he says it promotes "practical Torah
solutions to modern American problems," it really intends to broker
an alliance between Jews and evangelical Christians over social
issues. (Lapin, who considers Israel to be founded by "secular
Bolsheviks," has mostly steered Toward Tradition clear of foreign
policy.) Toward Tradition emerged at a propitious moment, just as
evangelicals carried the Republicans to their 1994 victory. And the
group soon had as much cachet as his Venice Beach temple. Its
inaugural conference drew Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and
other luminaries. Many of them lent their names to an ad Lapin
placed in The New York Times, offering Newt Gingrich a hearty "Mazel
Tov" and saying of the Contract with America, "We know all about
ten point contracts. "
Fulsome praise wasn't all Lapin offered conservatives. Some on the
right have an unfortunate tendency to blurt out the occasional
anti-Semitic remark, creating firestorms that require defusing. So
Lapin made it his business to defuse. When Pat Robertson came under
attack in 1995 for his ravings about Jewish financiers, Lapin leapt
to the minister's defense. "[Robertson]'s foolishness-per-volume
rate is, for example, far, far lower than that of Vice President Al
Gore," he told the Forward. After Pat Buchanan questioned the
magnitude of the Holocaust, Lapin retorted in the Jewish Week, "Is
it really worthwhile getting all of Jewish America in a dither over
the question of whether 5.9 million or six million Jews died?" More
recently, Lapin waxed lyrical about the virtues of Mel Gibson's
Passion of the Christ.
Conservatives have rewarded Lapin for taking on these thankless
assignments by turning him into a minor icon. He headlines the
Christian Coalition's Road to Victory gatherings. In April, he
deployed his silky oratory at Justice Sunday, a telecast where
preachers lined up to lambaste Democrats for filibustering George
W. Bush's judicial nominees. And, when Bush gathered clergy for
discussions of his faith-based initiative in December 2000, Lapin
was the only rabbi invited. Earlier this year, Lapin achieved an
even greater distinction--providing a blessing at the wedding of
(the unmistakably gentile) libertarian impresario Grover Norquist,
who was marrying a Muslim. Judaism, though, was beside the point.
Lapin was there in his role as rabbi to the right. ; Daniel Lapin's
allegiance to conservatism extends to economics.
Daniel Lapin's allegiance to conservatism extends to economics.
He'll hurl a verse from Leviticus to justify estate tax abolition.
His financial self-help book is an Andrew Carnegie-style gospel of
wealth delivered in a hamische accent: "Don't be embarrassed to
admit that you want more money." He excoriates the press for
"denigrat[ing] business" and suggesting that "business
professionals need to be restrained from committing crimes in their
single- minded pursuit of profit." No wonder Jack Abramoff fell
into his arms.
Abramoff's relationship with the Lapins dates to Johannesburg in the
1980s, when he met David while making the movie Red Scorpion. Over
the years, the lobbyist and the Lapins helped one another with
their various ventures. Abramoff, for instance, served as Toward
Tradition's chair--writing checks to the group and helping solicit
others. And, when Abramoff needed the brothers, they would lend him
a hand. Abramoff liked to masquerade his lobbying efforts as
ideological crusades, portraying parochial issues like Indian
gambling as bedrock conservative concerns. To this end, he could
count on Daniel to present clients, like Microsoft and Channel One,
as avatars of Mosaic values. In a Washington Times op-ed, Daniel
wrote that the government will "undermine our economy by destroying
excellent companies like Microsoft."
David, meanwhile, struck up a closer business relationship with
Abramoff: The rabbi appears throughout the billing records Abramoff
sent to his client, the Northern Mariana Islands--a chain of U.S.
territories in the Pacific that wanted to retain its special legal
status, which permitted sweatshops to set up there, pay far lower
than minimum wage, and still stamp garments made in the usa.
According to the documents, Abramoff billed for near-daily calls to
David. This wouldn't be such a big deal--except that Lapin was an
unlikely comrade in Abramoff's struggle to stave off changes in the
cnmi labor law, given that he was, at the time, a Johannesburg
That's not to say that Abramoff exploited the Lapins like an Indian
tribe. They benefited plenty from his patronage. The lobbyist paid
David more than $60, 000 to serve as the dean of his Maryland
yeshiva, even though the rabbi had taken up residence in Los
Angeles and only visited the school every month or so. "He was an
absentee dean," says Robert Whitehill, who taught at the school. "I
can't say that I saw much of him." Abramoff also tossed business in
the direction of David's SBE. According to its website, the rabbi's
firm consulted for the Pearl River Resort, owned by Abramoff's
client, the Choctaw Indians.
Abramoff brokered another contract for David Lapin with the cnmi.
Beginning in 1996, Lapin would fly from Johannesburg to hold
seminars with the cnmi civil service. Lapin claims his work
resulted in proposed legislation that would have increased the
island's minimum wage. But, according to cnmi officials, that bill
never passed. Pam Brown, the islands' former attorney general, wrote
in an e-mail to me: "I have spoken with no one familiar with the
'services' provided by Mr. Lapin that can point to any benefit to
the cnmi. One did report that he did travel often but that such
travel was in first class accommodations on the government's dime."
For this work, he earned a $1.2 million paycheck.
David Lapin is now suffering for this success. Ever since the Times
exposed the windfall the rabbi reaped from his cnmi work, he has
been furiously distancing himself from Abramoff in an attempt to
salvage his business from the taint of the connection. "Our contact
has been sporadic," David says of Abramoff. He insists that he
merited his Marianas million. Indeed, David now even seems to view
his brother as a liability. "David Lapin has no relationship to Mr.
Tom DeLay, nor is he in any way involved in his brother Daniel's
organization, Toward Tradition," reads a statement on SBE's
But, if David Lapin is sweating over the Abramoff scandal, Daniel
Lapin is positively sanguine. It's true that, over the years,
Daniel has alienated a broad swath of the Jewish community with his
flip dismissals of anti-Semitism and his frequent proclamations
that make it sound as if American Jews, with their "anti-Christian"
bigotry and "secular fundamentalism," are almost asking for a
pogrom. ("You'd have to be a recent immigrant from Outer Mongolia
not to know of the role that people with Jewish names play in the
coarsening of our culture," he recently wrote on
OrthodoxyToday.org. "The sad fact is that through Jewish actors,
playwrights, and producers, the Berlin stage of Weimar Germany
linked Jews and deviant sexuality in all its sordid manifestations
just as surely as Broadway does today.") The Progressive Policy
Institute's Marshall Wittmann says, "I'm not sure that he has a
Jewish following anymore."
But Daniel Lapin doesn't need one, because his evangelical
following--won over, in part, with help from Abramoff--has more
than compensated. And not even the Abramoff scandal, it seems,
could lessen evangelicals' devotion to him. In Washington, at the
Family Research Council, Lapin provided pastors with a crackling
exegesis of Genesis. The Bible's opening book, he argued, presented
competing visions of social organizations. There was the Tower of
Babel, a "vision of centralized control and atheism." By contrast,
the Abrahamic model represents "freedom, independence, and
As we spoke in the hotel lobby after this presentation, the Family
Research Council's president, Tony Perkins, interrupted. "I hope
you felt comfortable," he said hesitantly. Lapin responded in mock
horror, "Yes, in a room filled with so many avowed anti-Semites."
He chuckled. Other pastors kept approaching him and pumping his
hand. "That was awesome," a Texas preacher crowed. One of his South
Carolina colleagues followed. "Do you speak at churches?" he asked.
"All the time," Lapin replied. "Would you come to my congregation
in Columbia? They need to hear what you have to say." The rabbi
extended his hand forward so that his jacket rode up his sleeve. He
smiled broadly. "Twist my arm," he said.