Friday, September 01, 2006

Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan

I just read a cool article in Hamodiah (8/9) on the occasion of the 20th yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan z’’l, the founder of Bais Yaakov in America. The newspaper went out of its way to round up six women who were among the first generation of students of Rebbetzin Kaplan, and asked them to talk some about what they remembered from the early years. The first Bais Yaakov School was established in Krakow by Sarah Schneirer in the 20’s at the request of the Chafetz Chaim and others. It was the first Orthodox Jewish School that taught girls Torah as well as providing for a general education. Vichna Kaplan was a student of Reb. Schneirer. She married an American learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva, eventually moved to America and founded together with her husband a Bais Yaakov school in the early 1940’s.

Many such schools have been established all over the country. They have been enormously successful. Even when a school is somewhat different from a Bais Yaakov, it is always compared to the original. Most Ultra-Orthodox women have gone through the system. It is correct to say that Rebbetzin Kaplan changed the face of American Judaism. How did this happen? Was it an accident? Was it luck? Before I summarize what some of these women have said, I want to point out there is no historical biography of this remarkable woman. It’s not as if one has a choice between reading a hagiographic adulatory Artscroll type article or a comprehensive psychoanalytically informed academic study. If you’re interested in trying to understand how Ultra Orthodox Jewry developed, all you have are reminiscences of these women.

Here are some of the things these women said:

All decisions about educational policy were made in consultation with prominent rabbinical figures, in particular R. Ahron Kotler z’’l, R. Yitzchok Hutner z’’l and yblc”t R. Zelig Epstein and R. Aharon Schechter. (I would consider this point alone an excellent example of how a Daas Torah ideology was very successful. It provided an authority and a strong point of view, which the movement could rely on with confidence. Remember, there were no previous models to look at. I would also point out for future reference that neither Rebbetzin Kaplan, nor any of the advisory Rabbis nor any of the students had anything directly to do with the Holocaust. The latter is not mentioned once in the article and in fact had almost nothing to do with the success of the schools. The same is true of all the great American yeshivot. )

Rebbetzin Kaplan related to the girls as a mother would. She was strict when she needed to be, but in a soft quiet way. When a student didn’t behave appropriately, the way she spoke to her was malei taam (full of sweetness/affection), eidel (noble, dignified), yet with inner strength. She represented a different world, a world of true Torah. You could tell in her countenance (hadras panim) that she had seen Gedolim. You definitely felt that she was the next link after Sarah Schneirer. The women said that they looked up to her with tremendous respect. Although they had been her former students, she treated them with great respect as well. (I would say the primary vehicle for teaching was the person of Rebbetzin Kaplan herself. She taught through being who she was. )

She was soft-spoken yet her words penetrated our hearts. I remember her standing in front of the room, a tissue in her hand to brush away the tears, as she taught Shir Hashirim (the Biblical book The Song of Songs) with the commentary of the Alshich; her words came from the depths of her neshamah (soul).” (Here are women, 60+ years later, and what they remember is that their teacher cried out of piety while teaching. It is astounding that in the1940’s in America she would undertake to teach an advanced commentary like the Alshich to high school girls.)

She tried whenever possible to speak only in Yiddish. Introducing herself on the phone she would say, “Doh redt Kaplan.” (“Here speaks Kaplan.”) (The lesson here, I believe, is that she required her students to reach up to her level. She didn’t lower herself to the cultural level of her students. If the Sunday Hebrew schools in America had picked up just this one lesson, they would not be so unsuccessful.)

In those days, many frum women did not cover their hair. Kolel was unheard of. Knowledge of tznius (modesty) was considerably lacking. Rebbetzin Kaplan did not speak directly about tznius. Rather, we saw each day a living example in how she dressed and carried herself.

She emphasized the importance of being satisfied with simple material standards, the importance of not focusing on luxuries. ‘‘In ruchniyus (matters of spirituality) we should look up at those from whose heights we can learn, while in material matters , we should look downward, at those who have less than we do, appreciating what we have.’’ (In America we imbibe the culture of the alienated and decadent, e.g. The Sopranos and Sex in the City, and material values from the rich and the filthy rich. There has never been a glossy magazine called Bedford Stuyvesant.)

She emphasized that the women needed to remember that their first responsibility was to their families. Davening and learning should not be at the expense of the children’s needs. Although she encouraged marrying people who would learn in a kolel, she recognized that many wouldn’t. She told a wonderful story about a shoemaker whose storefront sign featured a tailor’s needle instead of a shoemaker’s tool. The man explained, “I’m essentially a tailor by trade, but lacking customers I mend shoes.” “Similarly,” Rebbetzin Kaplan said, “your husband is a kolel person even when he takes a job. He is essentially a ben Torah (a student of Torah). Always treat him that way.”

She told us that we, her talmidos (female students), were princesses, and that one day we would see a big Bais Yaakov movement in America.

How right she was.

Wishing everyone a wonderful Labor Day. Next blog Wednesday.


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