Week-long celebration planned for Jewish leader

November 28, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

BALTIMORE COUNTY — A Baltimore synagogue is planning an extraordinar week-long celebration of the life of an extraordinary member of the Jewish community: Louis L. Kaplan, who will turn 90 on Dec. 11.

The events begin Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. when speaker Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, will join in a public "conversation" with Dr. Kaplan at Beth Am, 2501 Eutaw Place.

This is the synagogue that the Baltimore educator -- an acclaimed conversationalist himself -- helped found 18 years ago.

And Dr. Kaplan is no stranger to honors.

They show the variety of his contributions to Jewish life, ranging from the King Christian X Liberation Medal, awarded by the Danish king in 1946, to the grove of 1,000 trees planted in Israel in 1960 to honor his 30th anniversary both as executive director of the Baltimore Board of Jewish Education and as dean and president of Baltimore Hebrew College.

The trees were donated by pupils of the 25 religious schools affiliated with the board. The king's medal recognized Dr. Kaplan's leadershipin raising funds for the relief of Danish Jews who had escaped from the Nazis to Sweden during World War II.

But the honors have not always been so formal.

They have included spontaneous praise from many colleagues during a life devoted to education -- Jewish and otherwise.

When Baltimore Hebrew University dedicated its 70th anniversary celebration to Dr. Kaplan last year, university president Leivy Smolar referred to "the wit, wisdom and sparkling originality of this remarkable man" and called him "the father of creative Jewish learning in Baltimore for over 60 years."

Dr. Kaplan had continued to head the Hebrew college, now a university, for another decade after the 1960 anniversary marked by the Israeli tree-planting. Many say he was the driving force in the college's attainment of university status.

He is known to an even wider audience as a high-profile member of the University of Maryland Board of Regents from 1952 to 1976, and as its chairman for five of those years.

When he helped found Beth Am, it was partly as the result of his efforts to interest Jews in smaller, more intimate congregations allowing for informal, intellectually stimulating give-and-take with the rabbi.

He was, in effect, Beth Am's rabbi for years. But he said in a 1991 interview: "I don't consider myself a rabbi although I perform some of the functions of a rabbi. I marry people, bury people. I've done a lot of these things. But I never took a fee for these services because I didn't want to be classified as a rabbi."

He also resisted Judaism's separation into its various historical and theological traditions, notably the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The current spiritual leader of Beth Am, Rabbi Ira J. Schiffer, was trained under a fourth, smaller and more independent branch of Judaism, the Reconstructionist.

The appearance of Elie Wiesel Dec. 6 will be only the first of five events planned to fete Dr. Kaplan and his daughter, Debbie Potts, who is retiring as administrator of Beth Am.

On the evening of Dec. 8, Alfred H. Moses, president of the American Jewish Committee, will speak on "The State of American Jewry" at the home of Beth Am members Ellen and Shale Stiller. On Dec. 10, Harris Chaiklin, professor of social work the University of Maryland, will discuss "Current Manifestations of Anti-Semitism: The Jewish Community's Response" at the home of Larry and Nancy Holder.

At 9:15 a.m. Dec. 12, a special service in the sanctuary of Beth Am will honor Dr. Kaplan and Mrs. Potts. Following the service, there will be a luncheon in their honor.

As seating will be limited for all of the week's events, reservations are required. For more information call the synagogue at 523-2446.

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