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Obituary of Rabbi Bernard Lipnick: Educator and fighter for civil rights, women's rights, Israel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2010 - Bernard "Bernie" Lipnick prepared well to become a rabbi, a role he actively served in for four decades at Congregation B'nai Amoona. But being a pulpit rabbi was never his goal.

"I became a rabbi - that was my title - but I didn't want to do rabbinic work," he told the St. Louis Jewish Light in 2008. "What I wanted to do was Jewish education."

Rabbi Lipnick did both. He never wavered from his lifelong focus on learning and teaching, whether in the pulpit, fighting on behalf of women's and civil rights or traveling far and wide. He was halfway through his seventh round-the-world cruise with his wife, Harriet, serving as a ship chaplain, when he fell ill last month. He was hospitalized in Hong Kong before returning to the U.S. Rabbi Lipnick died of lymphoma on Tuesday (April 20) at Missouri Baptist Hospital. He was 83.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Friday, April 23, at Congregation B'nai Amoona.

Rabbi Lipnick came to B'nai Amoona in 1951 as educational director. Shortly after his arrival, the synagogue Bulletin reported that "Rabbi Lipnick has brought a new spirit into the children." Though he had more than 700 students to inspire, he was quickly enlisted by Rabbi Abraham E. Halpern, then senior rabbi, to perform rabbinical duties and inspire the entire congregation.

Rabbi As Educator

"He was interested in education," said Harriet Lipnick, "but Rabbi Halpern convinced him that he could get a lot more done as the rabbi."

And so it came to be that after 11 years as educational director, Rabbi Lipnick was named senior rabbi when Rabbi Halpern died in 1962. He began to put his educational stamp on B'nai Amoona.


Under his leadership, the congregation built a preschool, which became the foundation for the Solomon Schechter Day School on what is now the Bernard Lipnick Campus of B'nai Amoona. He led the development of two camping programs, the Alfred Fleishman Summer Camps. He also instituted the Nir Galim program in 1972 that sent teenagers to live in Israel on a communal farm for a summer of religious education.

Rabbi Lipnick had made many trips to Israel, the first in 1949 while a student at Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He had wanted to go a year earlier to join Israel's fight for independence in the Arab-Israeli War, but had to settle for a trip where he could study and work.

He went from New York to Israel on a freighter. On the ship, he and other Americans formed language and geography learning groups. Upon arrival, he became the first foreign radio announcer for Kol Israel and used a shortwave radio to broadcast the news about Israel. He used an assumed name, Bernard Jerome, combining his and his brother's first names, because it was illegal for a non-citizen to be broadcasting.

He also did some newspaper work and a lot of manual labor, including digging wells and ditches, which gave him material to write about. The digging led to early recognition of his great baritone voice, which echoed so melodically in the wells that his foreman said he could quit digging and just sing. It was a voice he would go on to use in many recordings, including K'dusha Symphony.

He spent a year in Israel that first time, and returned throughout his life for year-long sabbaticals to study and write.

Ahead of His Time

His wife said, "He tried to be ahead of things." By almost any measure, he succeeded, his friends say.

He was in the vanguard of establishing a just society that respected and encouraged the rights of women.

He was credited with increasing student enrollment in all programs, but he was particularly lauded for increasing the number of girls attending Hebrew School. His many efforts on behalf of women resulted in total egalitarian rights within the congregation.

He was no less committed to civil rights. He was at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Two years later, he marched in Selma, Ala., to protest the murder of an activist, unfair state laws and voting rights infringements. After more than 500 peaceful demonstrators were violently assaulted on March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday," Rabbi Lipnick went to Selma to join the next march.

For his civil rights efforts, he shared the 2005 Jews United for Justice Heschel-King Award with Sister Antona Ebo, an African-American nun who was one of the first marchers in Selma.

The Life of a Leader

Rabbi Lipnick was born on April 29, 1926, in Baltimore, the younger of two brothers. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1939. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor's degree and received an academic diploma and a teaching certificate from Baltimore Hebrew University. He went on to complete a Master of Hebrew in Literature and received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. After his ordination, Rabbi Lipnick joined the staff of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for three years.

Around that time, he applied to serve as a military chaplain during the Korean War. He was in the Navy for a short time in World War II, but missed out on most of the war because of a theological deferment.

"When the Korean War came along, I saw an opportunity for me to make amends," he told the Jewish Light. But it was not to be. This time, a high blood pressure diagnosis kept him from serving.

"When I was turned down from the service, I was devastated," Rabbi Lipnick said.

But a friend told him about the opening at B'nai Amoona.

In 1972, he earned a Ph.D. from Washington University and was subsequently awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity. His numerous published works included selections in Eulogies and Sermons for Special Occasions, both edited by Morton A. Wallack. He received the Alexander Dushkin Prize from Hebrew University.

"Throughout his distinguished rabbinic career, Rabbi Lipnick has been a tower of strength not only to his own beloved synagogue, but to the entire Jewish and general communities of St. Louis," said Robert A. Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Jewish Light, upon Rabbi Lipnick's retirement from B'nai Amoona in 1991.

Following retirement, he and Harriet made their home in Idyllwild, Calif., in the San Jacinto mountains. There he hand-built a home on the forested side of a mountain at an altitude of 6,000 feet. From 2001 to 2002, he served Congregation Beth Shalom in Bermuda Dunes, Calif. When he developed some health problems, they returned to St. Louis in 2003, and Rabbi Emeritus Lipnick again served Congregation B'nai Amoona as needed.

Rabbi Lipnick was preceded in death by his parents, Thomas and Augusta "Gussie" Lipnick; his brother, Rabbi Jerome "Jerry" Lipnick, and his son, Daniel Lipnick.

In addition to his wife of 36 years, Harriet (nee Pogrelis) Lipnick of Chesterfield, Rabbi Lipnick is survived by two sons, Dr. Jesse (Corinne) Lipnick, of Gainsville, Fla., and David (Becca) Lipnick, of Farmington, N.M. He is also survived by his stepchildren, Jayme (Mark) Schwartz, of Arlington, Va., Mark (Nancy) Sophir, of St. Louis, and Tammy (Alan) Parry, of Poway, Calif. He was "Saba" to nine grandchildren.

Funeral services for Rabbi Lipnick will be at 11 a.m. on Friday, April 23, at the B'nai Amoona Sanctuary, 324 South Mason Road, Creve Coeur, Mo. 63141, followed by internment at the B'nai Amoona Cemetery, 930 North & South Road, University City. Following internment, the family will gather from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Wolf Auditorium at B'nai Amoona.

The Lipnick family would appreciate donations in Rabbi Lipnick's memory to the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Foundation for the Conservative Movement at Congregation B'nai Amoona.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.