Sky-high rabbi

Call it the smell of fear.

On his very first solo flight as a new pilot, Rabbi Raphael Lapin was guiding his Cessna 172 somewhere over the South Bay when suddenly he smelled something burning.

That’s not what you want hitting your shnoz at 3,500 feet in the air.

Sweating bullets, Lapin quickly steered the plane toward the nearest airfield and took her down. Once on the ground, he breathlessly told other pilots what had happened. They all started laughing at him.

“They told me there was an onion processing plant right near there,” he says. “That’s where the smell was coming from.”

Other than that scare, Lapin has been on cloud nine ever since earning his license a couple of years ago. He’s probably one of only a handful of piloting rabbis in the country.

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” says the San Jose-based Lapin. “The adventure and challenge of it. I like precision, and an aircraft is an amazing example of that.”

Ordained in 1978, Lapin is the spiritual leader of Am Echad in San Jose, a congregation formerly led by his father, the late Rabbi Avraham Lapin. His wife, Chanie, is the principal of Eitz Chaim Academy, an Orthodox day school in San Jose. Together, they have nine children ranging in age from 24 to 5 (including twin girls).

As if corralling nine kids (and running a management consulting firm) isn’t challenging enough, Lapin likes to take on big projects. Last time around, it was sailing. (He’s certified to use 40-foot boats.) “I’m a big believer in rejuvenation and refreshing myself every to six or seven years,” he says. “Something that challenges me in a new direction. It’s a jump-start to a new perspective.”

He started taking flying lessons two years ago at Tradewinds Aviation in San Jose, where his instructors wasted no time getting him up in the air.

“They get you up there pretty quickly,” he says. “You do some scary maneuvers where you go into a bit of a dive. Part of the excitement is overcoming fear. There were times I said I wouldn’t go back to the airport. But I wanted it so badly.”

A native of South Africa, Lapin says flying fits in with his approach to Judaism, which, as he describes it, integrates God’s law into the human world. “My father was an Orthodox rabbi,” he notes. “But he would go to the opera or the Sistine Chapel. He was as comfortable with Henry Kissinger as he was with the rabbis of the world.”

As co-founder of Conflict Management Inc., Lapin stays close to the rough-and-tumble business world, counting as clients Fortune 500 companies like British Telecommunications and Turner Construction. His rabbinical work keeps him close to the Jewish community.

But his pilot’s license keeps him close to HaShem, especially when flying at 4,000 feet straight into the sunset over Monterey Bay.

“There are few times I am so present as when I’m flying,” says Lapin. “You don’t think about anything else. Physically, visually, intellectually, you’re totally engaged. You’re not thinking ontologically, other than being aware of the view. But once you land, there is a feeling of invigoration that affects me in all dimensions.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.