It has been said that the measure of a ben Torah or a baal mussar is not dependent per se on the amount of Torah and mussar he has learned, but rather on how deeply the Torah and mussar has become a part of his essence. Rav Yeruchom Kaplan zt”l of Bensonhurst, NY was not only a boki in Torah and mussar, but the embodiment of both. Although he lived the vast majority of his life in the United States, he was a living example of what a Lithuanian ben yeshiva looked like. He imbibed the Kelmer approach to mussar and to life from his great father and rabbeim at Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud, who transmitted the mesorah that they had received from their ultimate teacher, the Mirrer mashgiach.
Rav Yeruchom was born in the fall of 1937 (Cheshvan 5698) to his parents, Rav Yisroel Mendel and Sara Baila Kaplan, in the town of Baranovitch. Yeruchom was the second of six children, one of whom died in Shanghai as an infant. He was named Yeruchom after the Mirrer mashgiach, under whom his father, Rav Mendel, had studied and who had passed away just a few months earlier. Yeruchom would go on to become extremely devoted to the Torah of his namesake, and, as he grew into a mechanech and mashpia, would quote the Mirrer mashgiach often. Yeruchom absorbed the Torah of the mashgiach from listening intently to his father and to his rabbeim at Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud, and from toiling over the published copies of the mashgiach’s shmuessen. An interesting point that was mentioned at the levayah on Sunday was that Rav Yeruchom would give over the Torah of the mashgiach in its pure form, without any additions or embellishments.
At the time of Yeruchom’s birth, his father, Rav Mendel, was a yungerman and maggid shiur at Yeshivas Ohel Torah Baranovitch. Rav Mendel had learned in the yeshiva during his youth and was a close talmid of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elchonon Wasserman. After a number of years in Baranovitch, Rav Mendel had gone to learn at the Mir Yeshiva under the mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz. After his marriage to Sara Baila, daughter of Rav Zvi Hirsh Gutman, the menahel ruchani of Ohel Torah Baranovitch, Rav Mendel returned to Baranovitch to continue to learn and teach. Rav Mendel was held in such high esteem at Ohel Torah that when Rav Elchonon travelled to the United States to raise desperately needed funds for the yeshiva, Rav Mendel was asked to say the shiurim in Rav Elchonon’s stead.
The Kaplans lived next door to Rav Elchonon and the two families were extremely close. When Rebbetzin Wasserman became ill, Rebbetzin Kaplan cooked for Rav Elchonon. Although little Yeruchom was only two years old when his family fled the city, he spent those first two years practically “at Rav Elchonon’s feet,” seeing him on an almost daily basis. He would relate to his family that he remembered seeing Rav Elchonon bake matzos and his face radiating like that of a malach.
With the outbreak of the war and the dispersal of the yeshivos, the Kaplans fled Baranovitch and travelled to Vilna. In Vilna, they rejoined Rav Mendel’s alma matter, the Mir Yeshiva, in its flight to Kobe, Japan and ultimately Shanghai, China. By the end of the war, Yeruchom was a boy of nine years old.
In 1946, the Kaplans immigrated to the United States, arriving in San Francisco. Soon afterwards, the Kaplans travelled to Illinois, where Rav Mendel became a rebbi at Bais Medrash L’Torah-Hebrew Theological College in Chicago’s West Side. For the first year, Yeruchom was enrolled in the local day school, but at the age of ten, his parents made the tough decision to send him to the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, where he stayed for at least three years.
To put things into context, we need to realize that Yeruchom was the Kaplans’ eldest boy and they had lost a child and numerous other family members during the war. Sending such a young child so far away was not only unheard of in Chicago, but was uncommon anywhere else for that matter. Nevertheless, Rav Mendel and Rebbetzin Sara Baila decided that that was what was needed for Yeruchom’s growth in Torah and they proudly set the example for others to follow.
After learning in Telshe under Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz and Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, Yeruchom learned for one year under Rav Mordechai Yaffe, who had a yeshiva in Kansas City. Yeruchom then travelled to the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn and learned under Rav Elya Jurkanski, Rav Shmuel Brudny, and Rav Efraim Mordechai Ginsburg for around four years.
In the late 1950s, when Yeruchom was around 18-19 years old, he transferred to Yeshivas Bais Hatalmud, which was then located in East New York. As there was another Yeruchom Kaplan at Bais Hatalmud during those years, Yeruchom was fondly referred to at the yeshiva as “Yeruchom Chicago.” Rav Yeruchom would remain a full-time talmid of the yeshiva for the next twenty years, accompanying the yeshiva in its move to Bensonhurst. Even after Rav Yeruchom would go on to take a position as rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Mikdash Melech, he would continue to daven and learn in Bais Hatalmud and bought a house just a block away. It was in Bais Hatalmud that Rav Yeruchom really found his place, developing into the gadol that he would eventually become.
At Bais Hatalmud, Rav Yeruchom forged deep and impactful relationships with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Leib Malin, and other members of the hanhalah, such as Rav Chaim Wisokier, Rav Shmuel Charkover, and Rav Leizer Horojesky. For a significant amount of time, Rav Yeruchom learned b’chavrusa with the rosh yeshiva, Rav Leib. The fact that Rav Yeruchom was able to learn b’chavrusa with someone of Rav Leib’s caliber was testament to his brilliance and high standing at the yeshiva.
After getting married in 1964 to Rebbetzin Rena, the daughter of the well-known chazzan Rav Yaakov Eliezer Baker, Rav Yeruchom continued to learn in the kollel of Bais Hatalmud. Although not an official member of the hanhalah, Rav Yeruchom had a profound impact on many of the younger talmidim who came to learn at the yeshiva in those days. Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah, related that when he came to Bais Hatalmud as a young bochur, Rav Leib instructed Rav Yeruchom to take him under his wing and introduce him to the limud of Seder Kodshim. Rav Leib also encouraged Rav Yeruchom to say a shiur to a number of younger boys. Rav Yeruchom was initially hesitant to say a shiur, feeling unworthy of the task. However, Rav Leib insisted, calling Rav Yeruchom’s home on the first day to ensure that he would come.
Rav Yisroel Dovid Ehrlich, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mishkan Hatalmud of Lakewood, related that everyone knew that they could speak to Rav Yeruchom about anything and that he had consulted with Rav Yeruchom about his own shidduchim. Indeed, this sentiment was echoed by a number of talmidim. One would never come away from a conversation with Rav Yeruchom feeling ashamed or belittled. On the contrary, speaking to him would have an elevating effect, raising one’s self-worth and significance in one’s own eyes.
Another talmid added that this was the manifestation of Rav Yeruchom having integrated Torah and mussar into his personality to the point where his avodas Hashem came naturally and with tremendous simcha. He was the opposite of heavy-handed, exuding a sense of calm and enjoyment in all aspects of his life.
As mentioned before, Rav Yeruchom’s persona shone through in his everyday activities and interactions. He would often quote the Rambam in Hilchos De’os, perek 5, who speaks of the importance of a talmid chochom being exceptional in everything that he does. He would give a moshol about the Hummer. In addition to having its name emblazoned in a prominent and visible place for all to see, it even says Hummer on the gas cap, signifying that everything, even down to the smallest piece, is “Hummer quality.” So too, a talmid chochom needs to have the signet of “talmid chochom” emblazoned on everything that he does, regardless of how “small” it may be.
His care and concern for every person’s feelings, from the greatest rosh yeshiva to the smallest child, were always on display. Whenever he would notice that someone was present who did not understand Yiddish, he would quickly switch the conversation to English.
In 1974, Rav Yeruchom was asked by his brothers-in-law, Rav Chaim Benoliel and Rav Dovid Lopian, to join them at the helm of Yeshiva Mikdash Melech, the first Sephardic yeshiva gedolah established in the Western Hemisphere. Throughout the many decades of Rav Yeruchom’s harbotzas Torah at Mikdash Melech, his talmidim clung to him as a mentor for life. Although Rav Yeruchom exuded an almost European nature, he understood his American talmidim to a tee and knew exactly how to speak to them. He was able to open up the worlds of Kelm, Mir, and Baranovitch to the young American boys from Sephardic homes. Many years after talmidim would leave the yeshiva, they would still come to Rav Yeruchom’s house for vaadim and life advice.
Rav Dovid Ozeri, today a noted rov and mashpia in the Syrian community, was a talmid of Rav Yeruchom at Yeshiva Mikdash Melech close to fifty years ago. At the levayah, Rav Ozeri spoke of Rav Yeruchom’s legendary anavah. The quintessential boreiach min hakavod, Rav Yeruchom would not get up from his seat at a chupah if he was called up for a brocha by the appellation “Harav Hagaon.” There came a point where he stopped attending family chasunos out of the fear that he would be called up for a kibbud. Rav Yeruchom would sit in the back left corner of the bais medrash with absolutely no fanfare. When people would speak to him in learning, he would invariably say things like, “Perhaps there is a Rambam in such and such a place that discusses this…,” never stating emphatically that he knew that he was right.
As another talmid explained, kavod is something that ensues from the realization of something’s true worth; it is not something that can be pursued from the outside. Rav Yeruchom, who had the unique ability to analyze something to its core and appraise its true value, was someone who exuded kavod, while running away from external and superficial imitations of it.
It has been suggested that this approach can explain another unique aspect of both Rav Mendel and Rav Yeruchom’s personalities. Many have remarked that Rav Yeruchom was, in many respects, a carbon copy of his father, Rav Mendel. Brilliant and talented people as they were, they were known to fix their own cars and have a surprising amount of knowledge and understanding about practical and worldly things. And yet, such things did not detract even an iota from their chashivus and regal bearings. While developing the knowledge and expertise necessary to fix a car might transform some people into full-fledged mechanics, for people like Rav Mendel and Rav Yeruchom that was not the case. They were able to see the car for what it was, utilizing it for its intended purpose and leaving it at that.
Such an approach also resulted in both Rav Mendel and Rav Yeruchom’s indefatigable pursuits of chesed. Rav Mendel, the prince of the yeshiva world, who was revered by gedolei Yisroel, was known to pick up hitchhikers off of the road, regardless of how disheveled or uncouth they appeared. When people would protest that such acts were not befitting someone of his stature, he would say that he was simply following in the footsteps of der zaide Avrohom Avinu. Likewise, Rav Yeruchom did not consider it beneath him to go on hikes with campers during the summer, take his mother to yard sales, and travel from Brooklyn to Far Rockaway to look at a house that his nephew was considering buying.
On one occasion, Rav Yeruchom noticed one of his nephews looking at a tool catalogue. Rav Yeruchom asked the young man if he enjoyed learning about tools and he responded in the affirmative. Rav Yeruchom told his nephew that this was a very good thing, because he would be able to help people in numerous ways. Indeed, Rav Dovid Ozeri recalled Rav Yeruchom entering the bungalows of many of the staff at Camp Shivtei Yisroel with tools, fixing different amenities that had broken. When those in the bungalow would protest that it wasn’t kavod haTorah, Rav Yeruchom would look at them as if he did not comprehend what they were saying.
In 1985, Rav Mendel was niftar suddenly two days before Pesach. That summer, the Philadelphia roshei yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei and ybl”c Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky drove to the mountains where Rav Yeruchom was spending the summer with his family and asked him to assume his father’s position as a maggid shiur at the Philadelphia Yeshiva. Rav Yeruchom declined the offer, saying that he had young children at home and he needed to stay in Bensonhurst. (When Rav Mendel began to say shiurim in Philadelphia in 1965, his children were already married. Rav Mendel would stay in Philadelphia throughout the week and come home for Shabbos.) Some have suggested that this reason was just a ruse, and Rav Yeruchom simply could not bring himself to take his father’s place.
In the late 1990s, Bais Hatalmud prevailed upon Rav Yeruchom to start saying shmuessen during seudah shlishis. This was indeed a tremendous honor, as that had been the time when Rav Chaim Wisokier used to say shmuessen. Around the same time, he began to work closely with Rav Yisroel Greenwald, a close talmid of his father, on a book about his father’s hanhagos and teachings. In 1994, the book was published by ArtScroll under the title Rav Mendel and His Wisdom. That book is now in its sixth printing. In the early 2000s, Rav Yeruchom published the sefer Nesivei Yam on Maseches Kiddushin, which was compiled from Rav Mendel’s notes.
Towards the end of Rav Yeruchom’s life, he suffered from various ailments. He passed away this past Sunday.
The levayah was held at Yeshiva Bais Hatalmud and hespeidim were delivered by Rav Moshe Mendel Brus, Rav Avrohom Bromberg, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rav Chaim Benoliel, Rav Dovid Lopian, Rav Yeruchom Zeilberger, Rav Yehuda Zeilberger, Rav Chaim Leib Perkowski, Rav Dovid Ozeri, Rav Naftoli Rakow, Rav Yaakov Lauer; his sons, Rav Shmuel Aryeh, Rav Yechiel Mordechai and Rav Chaim Yehuda; and his son-in-law, Rav Eliezer Lieberman. A levayah was held in Lakewood, where an overflow crowd gathered to show kavod acharon and hespeidim were delivered by Rav Yisroel Ehrlich, Rav Yerachmiel Ungarischer, and his sons-in-law, Rav Zorach Gobioff and Rav Yechezkel Ginsburg. Kevurah followed in Lakewood.
He leaves behind his wife; his siblings, Rebbetzin Rochel Lopian, wife of Rav Dovid Lopian, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Mikdash Melech, and Rebbetzin Esther Hutner, wife of Rav Shaul Hutner; his children, Rav Shmuel Aryeh Kaplan, Rav Yechiel Mordechai Kaplan, Rav Velvy Kaplan, who was extremely devoted to caring for his father, Rav Yisroel Mendel Kaplan, Rav Chaim Yehuda Kaplan, Mrs. Aliza Lieberman, Mrs. Dasi Gobioff, and Mrs. Avigayil Ginsburg; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sister, Rebbetzin Tzirel Benoliel, wife of Rav Chaim Benoliel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Mikdash Melech, and his brother, R’ Shimon. His brother, Chaim Ozer, was niftar in Shanghai during the war.
Yehi zichro boruch.
With appreciation to Rabbi Moshe Benoliel and Rabbi Dovid Klugmann for their assistance in the preparation of this article.