Yisrael Mendel Kaplan
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Rabbi Israel Mendel Kaplan or Yisrael Mendel Kaplan (April 14, 1913 – April 4, 1985), known as "Reb Mendel" served as a teacher in the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago and in the Philadelphia Yeshiva to many of the men who were to become the leaders of Orthodox American Jewry.
Yisrael Mendel Kaplan was born in 1913 in Baranovich, Poland (now Baranowicze, Belarus) to Avraham and Esther Kaplan. Avraham was a lawyer and Esther was involved in community service: Raising funds for the Yeshiva, feeding the poor and so forth.
After his bar mitzva, he was enrolled in the yeshiva of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman. He was considered a very promising student and was assigned Wasserman's son, Naftali, as a study partner. He later studied in the Mir yeshiva as well.
Marriage and children
While studying in Mir, he married Sarah Baila Gutman (b. Navahrudak, 1910 – d. New York City, March 12, 2008 ), the daughter of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Gutman, the administrator of the yeshiva in Baranowicze. When Rabbi Gutman was looking for a match, he asked Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman about a number of prospects. Rabbi Wasserman recommended Kaplan. When Rabbi Gutman pressed him "Isn't your own son, Naftoli, a little better?" Rabbi Wasserman answered "My Naftoli is a good boy, but he doesn't measure up to Mendel." (Greenwald 1995:31)
They had six children:
- Rabbi Yerucham Kaplan
- Tzirel, Wife of Rabbi Haim Benoliel
- Rachel, Wife of Rabbi David Lopian
- Esther Hutner (married Rabbi Shaul Hutner)
- Chaim Ozer Kaplan (born c.1942, died in Shanghai)
- Shimon Kaplan
Escape from the Nazis
In late 1939, the German's Invasion of Poland overtook Poland and the Jews of Baranovich fled for their lives. Wasserman advised his yeshiva students to regroup in then-independent Vilna, Lithuania. Kaplan and his family moved there and Kaplan studied there under Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik. In June 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Vilna, Jewish life became unbearable. Like the members of the Mir yeshiva and other refugees there, Kaplan sought visas to allow him to escape Nazi and Soviet rule. He obtained a de facto destination visa from the Dutch consul but was unable to obtain the necessary transit visa from Japanese Vice-consul, Chiune Sugihara that would allow his family to detour through Japan while awaiting some final, true destination. (Greenwald 1995:38)
The family nevertheless boarded the trains to the Russian port city of Vladivostok. His son, Chaim Ozer, was born on the train ride. After entering Japanese territory by boat, Kaplan expected deportation back to Russia and eventually Siberia. Japanese officials goaded him to produce any kind of visa and he reluctantly showed them an obviously tampered Japanese transit visa. Inexplicably, it was stamped and accepted and the family continued on to Kobe and then later to Shanghai. (Greenwald 1995:39–40)
His son Shimon was born in Shanghai, while his middle son, Chaim Ozer grew sick and died there.
Kaplan arrived in America after the war and moved to Chicago, where his brother, Rabbi Hertzl Kaplan was teaching at the Chicago yeshiva that was to become the Hebrew Theological College. Rabbi Israel Mendel Kaplan accepted a teaching position there, though his students were English-speaking and his English was not yet mastered. He won the students over by offering to "teach them to read the Chicago Tribune if they taught him to read English." His insights into world affairs and reading between the lines of the daily paper (even while needing help with the language) earned him his student's respect. (Greenwald 1995:44)
When his girls were old enough for high school, his wife moved with them to Brooklyn New York, so they could attend a Jewish girls high school in Williamsburg. Kaplan started Kaplan's Winery Corporation, producing traditional Kosher Concord wine, in an effort to supplement his income to cover his daughter's tuition costs. (Greenwald 1995:47)
By 1965, Kaplan had joined his family in New York and was invited to started teaching the first-level post-high school class in the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. He accepted the position, lived in the dormitory and commuted each weekend to his wife and family in Brooklyn. He stayed at the school and taught the same level until his death on April 4, 1985. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky commented "Ahzah Kuntz, (What a feat!) He is greater than famous Roshei Yeshiva, and he can still work quietly under younger men." (Greenwald 1995:48–49)
- Nesivei Yam ("Paths of the Sea") – containing novellae on the tractate Kiddushin (2005).
- Greenwald, Yisroel (1995). Reb Mendel and his Wisdom. ISBN 0-89906-117-6.
- Weiss, James David (1992). Vintage Wein: The Collected Wit and Wisdom, the Choicest Anecdotes and Vignettes of Rabbi Berel Wein. ISBN 978-0-89906-598-4.