Educator Louis L. Kaplan dies at 98

Leader of Jewish community served Hebrew University

January 03, 2001|By Frederick Rasmussen | Frederick Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Louis L. Kaplan - heralded as "the father of creative Jewish learning in Baltimore" and nearly synonymous with Baltimore Hebrew University - died in his sleep yesterday at North Oaks retirement community in Owings Mills. He was 98.

A major player in the local Jewish community for nearly 70 years, Dr. Kaplan was a highly respected educator who served Baltimore Hebrew for four decades and also chaired the University of Maryland Board of Regents during the 1970s. He wrote widely on Judaism and helped establish Beth Am Synagogue on Eutaw Place in West Baltimore.

An irascible and outspoken educator who refused to wear the traditional yarmulke, Dr. Kaplan once described himself in a interview simply as a rebbe, the Hebrew word for teacher.

A former longtime resident of the Fallstaff Road area, he began his teaching career at the Park Heights Avenue educational institution in 1930, in the days when it was known as Baltimore Hebrew College.

"I'm a teacher. I was a professional teacher," he told The Sun in a 1991 interview.

Credited with securing university status for the college, he retired as president in 1970.

Opposed to the division of Judaism into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other branches, he prided himself on bringing a diverse faculty to the uni- versity's campus in Northwest Baltimore.

"The faculty held strongly individual views," he told The Sun in a 1970 interview. He described them as "Yiddishist, Hebraist-Zionist, moderate Orthodox, Conservative and eclectic," and placed himself in the later category.

"For me, all learning is the Torah. ... The Jews were the first people to value man as the most important thing in the universe and the first to see `meaning and purpose, order and design' in human history, a process the ancients regarded as a mindless cycle of events, recurring like the seasons.

"All Jews, except the lunatic fringes, recognize themselves as one historic family, specially chosen by God, not for domination but as a laboratory for people to show how moral laws can be put into effect in the life of a society," he said.

After Dr. Kaplan retired, he served as interim chancellor of University of Maryland, Baltimore County from 1976 to 1977.

In 1952, Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin appointed him to the University of Maryland Board of Regents. He later served as its chairman for five years until stepping down in 1976.

When Chizuk Amuno synagogue, which had moved to Stevenson in Baltimore County in the 1960s, decided to close its former synagogue in the 2500 block of Eutaw Place, Dr. Kaplan was the driving force behind the 1974 effort to establish what he described as an "independent synagogue."

Named Beth Am or "The House of the People" by its congregants, Dr. Kaplan served as the synagogue's leader - not its rabbi.

"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 told The Sun in 1991.

The bima of Beth Am was also the setting until the 1990s, of Dr. Kaplan's annual Yom Kippur colloquies. The popular forum, in which a wide range of issues were openly discussed, drew a mixed ethnic and religious audience.

"He was a charismatic speaker and people would come ... just to hear him speak," said Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, director of the department of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins Medical School and former president of the Beth Am synagogue.

"He would take questions from the audience and every answer became a little sermonette. He would field any question," he said.

Dr. Snyder described him as a man of "enormous integrity" who had "strong feelings and wasn't afraid to say what he thought. He really was an extraordinary intellect whose appeal cut across generations. People who were his students became disciples for life."

George B. Hess Jr., retired chairman of Hess Shoes and member of a Bible study group that met in Dr. Kaplan's North Oaks apartment up to his death, said, "He was a giant in the Jewish community."

"He was one of the greatest minds that I have ever known. He could fluently translate biblical or ancient Hebrew into English and had total recall of the Old Testament or the Hebrew scriptures," he said.

Born in Slonim, Lithuania, his family immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1906, and his father set up a sweater factory.

After graduating from Boys' High School, he earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1922, and a doctorate in humane letters from Dropsie College in Philadelphia in 1927.

He studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1924 to 1925 and at the American School of Oriental Research with archaeologist William Foxwell Albright.

He wrote "A New Approach to the Teaching of the Torah," a commentary and interpretation on the Five Books of Moses.

He served as director of the Jewish Board of Education for over 40 years and was executive director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Foundation for many years.

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