His own kind of rabbi

From Brooklyn to Israel; the IDF to yeshiva; Colombia to the secular, this rabbi follows his own path.

Dov Kaplan 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dov Kaplan 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Centuries ago, the Jewish community of Caesarea thrived. Today, amidst the ruins, aqueducts, golf course, and expensive homes, a Jewish community is again thriving due to a young rabbi and his wife, Dov and Frieda Kaplan. Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and requested permission from Roman leader Vespasian to establish an academy in Yavne. Ben-Zakai's students would become the rabbis and teachers who would preserve the continuity of Torah teaching, not only in Israel but also in the Diaspora. According to some commentators, Ben-Zakai assessed that these rabbis would need special skills, and instructed his disciples to leave the study hall and take the time to see the world. He told them that only after observing the community's members would they become familiar with their characters and learn how to teach and help them. Centuries later, Rabbi Dov Kaplan was born in Brooklyn. "I had positive religious experiences as a boy growing up in Brooklyn, and my parents, both educators, were always ready to do things a bit differently," remembers Kaplan. When he was 11, the Kaplans made aliya. After his army service, Kaplan studied for rabbinical ordination at Jerusalem's Yeshivat HaKotel. After some time, he asked to meet with his teachers and rabbis to share his "frustration that they were not making me the rabbi I wanted to become." "You are making me a posek (a rabbi who rules on points of Jewish law). I want to be a community rabbi who's actively involved with the needs and problems of the community," Kaplan told his teachers, explaining he wanted to bring Jews closer to Yiddishkeit. Kaplan remembers his rabbis looking at him in surprise and then agreeing. They told him that the role of rabbis and synagogues were different in Israel than in the Diaspora. They told him that while he wouldn't receive training as a community rabbi in his yeshiva, he should finish his rabbinical degree. They told him they would help him "find his path." Kaplan took their advice. He completed his studies and enrolled in the country's first training program for community rabbis, the Jerusalem-based Yad Avi Hayishuv, sponsored by the Rothschild Foundation. Candidates who finish the program are obligated to spend three years abroad as a community rabbi, and then return to Israel. By the time he finished his training, Kaplan was married and a father. His family faced the decision of where to do their three years of shlihut (service abroad). The small Jewish community of Cali, Colombia, very much wanted them to come. A remark made to the young couple by Kaplan's mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, pointed the way: "If you are crazy enough to go there, [it's] true shlihut," Riskin told them. They knew he was right, but took a crash course in Spanish anyway and arrived in Cali in 1989. "We learned a great deal about Yiddishkeit in Colombia and about how to get to know a community," remembers Kaplan. "There were tough times, even scary times, but we also learned a lot about [ourselves] as a couple and as a family. The first thing we had to do for the community was ascertain where to start for [the] Jews who were far away from Judaism. "The question we posed to ourselves," says Kaplan, explaining how he and Frieda decided to reach out to non-observant Jews, "was how we could make the [Jewish holidays] a 'happening' that would be relevant [for] all ages, from kids to grandparents." The rabbi started with Purim. The synagogue held two readings of the Book of Esther - the first immediately after the Fast of Esther, which precedes the holiday, and the second later in the evening, in a more theatrical style. For the second reading, the congregation came in costume to the synagogue, which had been transformed into a palace. For the three years he was in Cali, Kaplan also conducted community seders for over 250 people. "It was a great joy to participate and organize an Orthodox seder, where we all had fun," he remembers. Fifteen years ago, the couple returned to Israel with their family, which had grown with the adoption of a little boy in Colombia. But now, they were bombarded with questions. "Why did you come back?" Kaplan was asked by a fellow soldier while serving reserve duty. "Zionism is what brought us back," he answered. "We made the choice not to live in the United States because we want our kids to grow up in Israel." But that reply sounded too pat, and he continued to ponder the question of why, in fact, he was here. Kaplan knew he still wanted to be a community rabbi. Could he do that in Israel, he wondered. His search led him to Caesarea, where Kaplan was accepted as the community's rabbi. When he arrived in 1997, Caesarea - unique in that it is the only locality in Israel managed by a private corporation, the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Development Corporation (CDC) - had only one synagogue, whose membership was comprised of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The two groups wanted to keep their own traditions but pray together. The Kaplans settled in to learn from and enrich Caesarea's Jewish life. Their approach was to complement, not compete with, what was already in place. "We knew that Independence Day in Israel is synonymous with family barbeques and trips," explains Frieda. The rabbi's own family began a tradition of hosting an Independence Day breakfast to which community members are invited. In addition to preparing local boys for their bar mitzva, Kaplan teaches about the holidays, Jewish family issues and Jewish concepts in the local public school. "It took them a while to trust me, but now we have a fine relationship," he says. "My goal is to teach Judaism in a way that is both according to tradition and is 'user-friendly.'" He recalls Riskin telling his students that "Judaism is not only for the religious. You, my students, will be rabbis of the entire community, not only the minyan-goers." Frieda is equally busy leading a story hour at the local library and running workshops for mothers and daughters six months before the girls' bat mitzva. "We study Jewish sources connected to [the] bat mitzva and the universal, beautiful issues between mothers and daughters," Frieda says. She points out that of the 22 girls who attended one of her bat mitzvah workshops, only two were from the shul. The Jewish community and the CDC recently built a second synagogue, where Kaplan is also the rabbi. He admits that it's a challenge to divide his time on Shabbat, since it is a 40-minute power walk between the two synagogues. He stresses that despite the two shuls, Caesarea's Jewish community is united. Ashkenazi and Sephardi worshipers sit together, and customs are mixed. "We pride ourselves on being Orthodox but tolerant, and want more Jews to come to services. Although people love the customs of their fathers, we believe that Jews want to live together. The proof of our coexistence is that we pray together and our children are marrying each other," he says. "We like the people who make up the Jewish community. We care about them and are blessed to be here," Kaplan points out. "We need to reach out to the people who don't go to shul. From there we can say, 'Now let's go and learn Torah together.'"