Memory Lane: Rav Mordechai Aaron Hakohen Kaplan
In the small town of Medewitz, in the Minsk region lay a dying woman. Her parting words to her only 11-year-old son were; “go learn in the big yeshivos, and become great in Torah.” Rav Mordechai Aaron Kaplan fulfilled her wish, and the Jews of Harlem and Boro Park of yesteryear would reap the fruits of her fervent wish. He left for Minsk, and entered the yeshiva of Rav Leib Bass, a dayan in the city, and later in the yeshivos of Slutsk and the Mir, where he excelled in his learning.
He arrived in America in 1908, and entered Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, receiving semicha there.
His first position was in the Bnei Yaakov Shul in East New York, then a very prominent tenure in Nachlas Tzvi in Harlem, and around 1926, Rabbi Kaplan assumed the position of Rav of Congregation Bnei Yehuda in Boro Park.
Rabbi Kaplan was extremely involved in the fields of kashrus, heading up the Vaad hakashrus of Boro Park, and headlined many meetings for this cause. In the field of chinuch, he oversaw Yeshiva Toras Emes, and was deeply involved in this. He waged a fierce battle for the cause opf Shemiras Shabbos, holding rallies and gatherings, and lobbying for the repeal of the “blue laws.”
Dr. Phillip Kipust, z”l, a native of Boro Park from the early days, and a longtime mechanech in the town, did much work in commemorating the history of Boro Park in his three-volume “I Remember Boro Park, a collection of his articles that appeared in his newspaper column since the 1970’s.” He profiled Rabbi Kaplan fifty years since his passing, and interviewed a number of individuals who spent their youth in the shul and retained an indelible impression of the man.
“A recurring theme in almost any conversation I had with people about Rabbi Kaplan was his great oratorical prowess—Almost everyone I spoke to about Rabbi Kaplan z”l remarked about his great oratory and how they recalled the Shul being packed when he spoke (in the Yiddish language) in particular on Shabbos afternoons.”
Another recalled his father—a board member at the shul—taking him to the Rav’s residence on 54th Street to be tested on the chumash he had learned in Yeshiva Eitz Chaim. He also related how Rabbi Kaplan memorably, year after year, led the congregation in tefillas Ne’ilah… the Rabbi’s perfect Hebrew diction - how he enunciated every word with great precision, pronouncing each syllable.
Others recall frequenting the Rabbis home where he would pasken she’eilos on the chickens that came from one of the many butchers in Boro Park, and how he kept a designated knife on hand for this purpose. His daughter related how people would come from far and wide to have their disputes settled by Rabbi Kaplan.
Thus, Rav Kaplan dedicated himself completely to furthering the cause of Yiddishkeit in America in all areas. He was niftar on 25 Shevat 1951, and his levaya was a rare gathering of masses of people who accorded a kavod acharon to this leader who led and inspired them in Boro Park of yesteryear.