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The Republicans' Rabbi-in-Arms
Lapin's subject this day is "Jewish guilt": more specifically, "Why the Torah discourages guilt about sex and money," and much of it is drawn from one of his books. It may sound "anti-Semitic," he says, but there must be a reason why Jews are disproportionately represented on the Forbes 400 list, and he concludes that the best explanation is that "Jewish success is embedded in the Torah system. We don't believe it to be an evil process."
"Does God want people to be rich?" he asks. "Yes!" he says, and explains how God "wants us to be obsessively preoccupied by one another's needs," a habit that the commerce relationship fosters. "Wealth is a consequence of doing the right thing," he says, "and this is one of the secrets of Jewish success."
This is one of those moments in history when "Washington for Sale" is an overused headline. In addition to the Senate investigation, Abramoff is also under investigation by the Justice Department for charging lavish golfing trips for DeLay on his credit card. (It is illegal for a lobbyist to pay for a lawmaker's travel.) Several members of Congress are under investigation for illegally accepting perks from corporations they oversee. Greed for money and power are the sins of the moment in Washington, and the people under suspicion are many of Lapin's close political friends: Abramoff, DeLay, Reed and, distantly, Norquist. But Lapin dismisses it all as an accounting error.
"You can't just make money and then as an afterthought think of ethics as a cost item, something that cuts back profits," he says after his speech. "The right way is the best way."
Lapin's first taste of ministering to the powerful came in Venice Beach in the '80s, when, newly arrived from South Africa, he ran the Pacific Jewish Center with conservative radio host and movie critic Michael Medved. The center was a curious place; it was housed in a synagogue on the boardwalk that had lapsed in membership. Lapin and Medved targeted young Jewish strays, people looking to rediscover their roots. Young people would roller-skate in, and Lapin would invite them over for Shabbat dinner; eventually some Hollywood stars discovered the charismatic Lapin.
Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss came. Elliott Gould was a regular, and the shul held a fundraising banquet in his honor, with Pia Zadora and Burgess Meredith and all of his friends, recalls Meyer Denn, a synagogue leader. Lapin wound up tutoring Barbra Streisand's son for his bar mitzvah and consulting on "Yentl," her movie about an Orthodox Jewish girl. At some point Armand Hammer joined, and when he was 85, the shul offered to hold a banquet in his honor, which they billed as his bar mitzvah. He died the night before the planned banquet, so they changed it into a celebration of his life.
Around 1990, Abramoff flew in to meet Lapin and Medved. Abramoff had been living in South Africa filming his B-list Cold War thriller "Red Scorpion," starring Dolph Lundgren. A convert to Orthodox Judaism, Abramoff had bought a house next door to the Lapins to attend younger brother David Lapin's Torah study center. Abramoff wanted publicity for his movie, so David Lapin suggested he look up his brother and Medved, Orthodox Jews who knew Hollywood types.
David and Abramoff are spiritually closer. "My brother was very influential in Jack's odyssey of practicing Judaism," says Daniel. Abramoff and Daniel, on the other hand, were a much more natural match. Daniel was then only dabbling in politics -- he'd preached in favor of Ronald Reagan. But in a few years he and Abramoff would move in the same direction as practicing Orthodox Jews who found a home among conservative Christians in Washington.
Some Jews are prominent neoconservatives -- Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol -- but their relationship with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party is somewhat rocky and often distant. Orthodox Jews are socially conservative but until recently have shied away from participating much in American politics.
That left Abramoff and Lapin to fill the vacuum. Neither fit in well with the Jewish establishment. For instance, Abramoff didn't like any of the Jewish schools in the Washington area, so he started his own. Lapin developed a habit of defending the Christian Coalition at the expense of more liberal Jewish leaders. They became close enough that Abramoff credits Lapin with introducing him to DeLay, the relationship that became Abramoff's most valuable and is now at the center of the lobbying scandal.
When Abramoff was nervous about being accepted to the tony old Cosmos Club in Washington, he turned to Lapin for help. Would it be possible, Abramoff asked in an e-mail released by Senate investigators this week, for Abramoff to claim that he'd received an award from Lapin's group, Toward Tradition, something like "Scholar of Talmudic Studies," he suggests, or "Distinguished Biblical Scholar Award."
"Yes," Lapin answered, "I just need to know what needs to be produced. . . . letters? Plaques? Neither?" And then they signed off in the traditional Jewish greeting -- "Good Shabbos."