Allen Lipis: ‘If Not Now, When?’
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Allen Lipis: ‘If Not Now, When?’

The author’s new guide to Jewish self-improvement is based on ten years of research and reflection.

Shaindle Schmuckler spreads her energy and humor as a regular contributor to the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Allen Lipis holding his new book "If Not Now When?".
Allen Lipis holding his new book "If Not Now When?".

AJT: Allen, you have a new book out, “If Not Now, When?” Can you tell us about where the title comes from?
Allen Lipis: The title comes from a famous remark by Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The subtitle is: “Character Improvement Based on Jewish Ethics.”

AJT: What was your life like before you started your book?
AL: I have been a member of Beth Jacob Synagogue for many decades, and I listened to presentations from the rabbis there and other visiting rabbis. I ran my own consulting firm on payment systems, and I was comfortable doing research on various topics, as well as making presentations of our research to banking audiences nationally and internationally. I had an excellent reputation for research and consulting.

AJT: What propelled you to want to write this book?
AL: I had never been interested enough in a Jewish topic to study it in detail on my own. Yet, attached to the Beth Jacob synagogue was the Kollel learning center, where many people were studying Jewish topics every evening. One night I walked in and briefly spoke with Rabbi Goldberger, the rabbi in charge. Rabbi Goldberger suggested taking on a topic to study and suggested that I study Pirkei Avos, the Ethics of the Fathers, a part of Talmud that deals with how to live your life. He matched me up with Bill Griss, who was much more knowledgeable than I am. That started me on a 10-year path to become more and more knowledgeable about what the rabbis said about improving your behavior to be a more perfect human being. As I learned more and more, it occurred to me that only rabbis were writing on this subject and I could contribute by summarizing what they said into a single volume and do it from a layman’s perspective. In addition, I could add stories both from my own experience and from others that could reinforce what the rabbis were saying.

AJT: When you started the book, how did you organize the information?
AL: Organizing the book was perhaps the most difficult subject of all, because it required pulling together the thoughts of dozens of books and hundreds of comments made by more than a hundred rabbis. Gradually, it occurred to me that the essence of what God requires of all of us is to work on being a happy and joyous person in the face of so many other emotions that prevent that from happening. As I proceeded, I started to outline the various emotions that prevent a person from being happy and joyous and the list amounted to about 20 categories. Some of the categories did not deal with negative emotions, but rather with speech, relationships, decisions, actions and gaining knowledge. I decided to include these sections in my book because they were very important subjects that assist a person in becoming a better person. As I read a book, I underlined with a yellow marker those sections that I found useful. I copied these sections onto an Excel worksheet and categorized each into the various chapters in the book. So, for example, all statements that dealt with Action were labeled “A” and those dealing with decisions were labeled “D.” In this way, I could organize the various statement from all the books I read. From there, I could rewrite these statements to suit my taste, changing them as I saw fit. In addition, I could decide how to combine all the statements on Action from the dozens of books into a structure that worked for me. It was a complicated process. I had plenty of stories from my own life that would fit in various places, but I searched for many other stories by returning to the books I had read and other sources to bring the material to life. This took considerable time, but it was worth it.

AJT: Did you know what information you wanted to include, or did you surprise yourself?
AL: At first, I just took whatever material I found interesting or insightful without knowing if I could use it. I had many more statements than I used, but gradually, as I looked at the enormous amount of material that I had gathered, it became clear what worked together and in what order.

AJT: How long did it take you to write this book?
AL: I started studying Jewish ethics ten years ago and never stopped. At first, I thought I could organize a series of lectures, and I did. I had six speakers. It was well received. Over time, I gradually gave up on the lecture series because I needed a team to work with me to find a location, establish a marketing plan, and sell the idea to hundreds of people. I finally thought it best to write the book first and then see where it led.

AJT: Who proofed it for you? Did your family help?
AL: My wife proofed the book and caught many typos, and I read the book several times, making many changes each time. I think I might have had a better book with a professional editor. Creating a book is a great deal of work.

AJT: Do you have another book in you that you wish to write?
AL: Yes, I have another book that will follow this one perfectly. I want to find inspiring Jewish stories to supplement this book. Stories can bring the material to life, and each of us has one or more inspiring stories to tell. It will be a great way to establish relationships and find new friends and stay close to old ones. I have already started the process. If you have an inspiring story to tell, I want to hear it and publish it.

AJT: Before you became a writer, what did you do?
AL: I have always been strong in mathematics. I started as an accountant, then switched to mathematical statistics, and then to operations research — the use of mathematics to solve business problems. I worked for a research company, then at M&M Candies, then a consulting firm and eventually vice president at Citibank. That led to me being invited to Atlanta to work with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta on the development of the ACH, the Automated Clearing House, the electronic payment service that handles direct deposit of paychecks, social security payments and other electronic payments. Gradually, over time, I became a writer of research reports for the banking industry. But that writing ability proved useful for this book.

AJT: Tell us about your family.
AL: I am married to Judy Lipis, and we have been married for 57 years. I have three children and each of them have three children.

AJT: What do you want our readers to know about you?
AL: I have a Ph.D. in operations research, I have a very supportive and loving wife, and I am attached to all of my family. I was very successful running my own consulting firm, I have published several books previously, and I have given many dozens of speeches nationally and internationally.

AJT: What was your inspiration, during the ten years, to keep you focused on completing the book?
AL: I have come to believe that character improvement is the goal for everyone. It is the most important aspect of any religion, and yet there is too little focus on the subject, partly because change is never easy. I know that none of us wants to change, even for the better, because it is difficult. It is one reason why a lecture series may not appeal to people, but reading a book might be more of an incentive to encourage a person to change.

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