The more I stayed, the more I wanted to

When Rabbi Steven Kaplan arrived in Fremont to take his first post as a senior rabbi, he didn’t really think about whether he’d stay at Temple Beth Torah the rest of his career.

But he found that whatever issues interested him — especially, Ethiopian and Russian Jewry — the congregation backed him all the way.

“They were very supportive of whatever topics I took on,” said Kaplan. “Then the more I stayed, the more I wanted to stay.”

Kaplan, 56, is now marking his 25th year with the Reform congregation. He is being honored at an event Saturday night, May 8, along with Frank Sherr, who has also reached the quarter-century mark with the congregation. Sherr, a former concert pianist, is Beth Torah’s accompanist.

It was Kaplan who wanted his colleague honored along with him. Kaplan said that Sherr, who has played Carnegie Hall, joined the congregation when he was saying Kaddish for his father. Kaplan asked if he would play at a service, and that turned into a month, which turned into a year, which turned into 25. While Sherr is appreciated for all he does, said Kaplan, he has added a unique touch to the service by playing classical pieces during silent meditations.

Kaplan, a Cleveland native, had served as an assistant rabbi in Birmingham, Ala., before joining Beth Torah. When he visited Fremont after applying for the post, the young rabbi was impressed by those interviewing him.

According to one of them, longtime temple member Florence Silver, “We had hundreds of questions and we peppered him for several days.”

But they were not heavy-handed, according to Kaplan. “The people who interviewed me were kind and asked really intelligent questions. They showed a really positive spirit about Judaism.”

Silver recalled several issues that were important to them, a congregation of about 100 families, at the time.

It was the late 1970s, and the major concerns of the day did not only revolve around ritual and prayer. The congregation wanted to hire a rabbi who believed in the full participation of women. And, since smoking was an extremely divisive issue and congregants battled over where it should be allowed, they asked the rabbi’s opinion on that issue as well.

For Kaplan’s part, it was important that he and his wife settle in a place where their daughter, who was 4 at the time, could attend preschool. That wasn’t a problem at Beth Torah.

When the Kaplans first arrived in July 1979, the sanctuary and classroom building had just been built. “It was so new that they had yet to put in the grass and the sprinklers,” he said. “And the back of the social hall wasn’t finished.”

Two years after settling in Fremont, Kaplan took an opportunity to go on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia. This visit had a profound impact, and for the next two decades Kaplan served in a number of leadership positions in the Ethiopian Jewry movement.

Also, through the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal, the synagogue developed a sister relationship with the city of Borovichi in the former Soviet Union. Kaplan and a few synagogue members have not only donated money, but have visited the Jewish community there and continually stay in touch with its residents.

“He’s always been behind things like that,” said the congregation’s president, Alan Eisenbruck, noting that Kaplan has a real gift for communicating what he has seen in other parts of the world. “He knows every detail. If he doesn’t get to go, he reads about it all night long. It’s amazing what he knows.”

Silver said the rabbi was responsible for “opening us up to the bigger world out there than just the Jewish community.”

For instance, the synagogue recently held its 21st annual interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Day, a tradition that began years ago when a Lutheran pastor approached Kaplan about observing the day together. That turned into a tradition that has involved people of different faith congregations in the Tri-Valley area.

Kaplan has also had a direct hand in educating many synagogue members. That’s because he teaches Hebrew school and gets to know the children that way, and he has led seven adult b’nai mitzvah classes.

A lot has happened during Kaplan’s tenure with the synagogue. He’s seen it grow from 100 to 300 families. And in 1993, he lost his wife to breast cancer.

Just as he said the congregation rallied around his family to offer their support, his congregants said he is especially good at offering solace to those in need.

“When he knows that somebody has had a death or an illness in the family, he finds out anything we at temple can do for the family,” said Eisenbruck. “And when they come to services, he makes sure that he seeks people out and comforts them. That’s one of the most important things we as a temple can provide for our members.”

Kaplan remarried in 1995, to oncologist Paula Kushlan, and in addition to his three daughters, he has two stepsons.

Both the rabbi and congregants seem to feel that Temple Beth Torah and Kaplan were a shiduch destined to be.

“I always remember him as the young rabbi with the beard, which he doesn’t have anymore,” said Eisenbruck, a temple member for 19 years, “But he was one of the reasons we joined. He made it easy.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."