On the occasion of the 39th yartzheit of Rabbi Aryeh Moshe Eliyahu Kaplan, NCSY – the national youth movement of the Orthodox Union – has launched the NCSY Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library. The reissuance of Rabbi Kaplan’s illuminating writings is designed to help preserve his unique legacy and introduce it to contemporary youth.
Rabbi Kaplan, one of the central figures in the American Jewish spiritual awakening “teshuva movement” of the 1960s, was one of NCSY’s foremost thinkers who influenced thousands of unaffiliated Jewish teens over the course of several decades. The physicist-turned-rabbi’s prolific output of books, essays, pamphlets and translations of complex Kabbalah works were clear and compelling. Most notably, perhaps, Rabbi Kaplan synthesized his extraordinary understanding of Jewish law, mysticism, science and other disciplines to make them accessible to a wide Jewish audience, especially teenagers – a notoriously underserved demographic.
NCSY Director of Education Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin spent two years editing the collection of Rabbi Kaplan’s writings, which comprise 10 volumes. Other than searching for typographical errors or fixing an occasional grammatical misstep, he found he didn’t need to update the words themselves to make them relevant and relatable to today’s Jewish teens.
“Rabbi Kaplan had the unique gift of making complex ideas accessible to the masses, which is even more incredible when you consider that he himself did not grow up religious or receive a yeshiva day school education,” said Rabbi Bashevkin.
In fact, it was a chance encounter as a teenager saying Kaddish for his mother that Rabbi Kaplan was introduced to Orthodox Judaism. From learning Hebrew and studying at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Torah Vodaath to earning rabbinic ordination at Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva and being recruited to teach and disseminate Torah to teens through NCSY, Rabbi Kaplan’s journey demonstrates that anyone, no matter how humble his or her Jewish background, can become learned.
It was with this thought in mind that Rabbi Bashevkin determined to time the re-publication of Rabbi Kaplan’s works with NCSY’s annual Yarchei Kallah, which took place recently in Stamford, Conn.
The five-day retreat draws public school teens who forgo more traditional winter break plans such as ski trips and Florida vacations to instead learn Torah with fellow teens. This year, Yarchei Kallah included teens from across the country and as far away as Argentina.
Following a short presentation of Rabbi Kaplan's life and legacy, teens broke out into 10 different experiences designed to correspond with the 10 different books of the anthology. Programs included how social media can be leveraged to share Torah ideas, how to create moments on Shabbat, and understanding what Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith means to teens. One of the experiences included an exercise taken directly from If You Were God.
Gevura Davis, a Philadelphia-based rebbetzin and motivational speaker with Mikvah USA, who teaches girls about the value of the laws of family purity against the backdrop of Rabbi Kaplan’s “Waters of Eden.” “I was a public-school graduate with no Jewish background when someone invited me to an Orthodox synagogue and gave me a copy of Rabbi Kaplan’s If You Were God,” Davis said. “Since I read that essay, my life has looked very different.”
She added, “Young people are exploring and forming their identities, and if we don’t offer a Jewish approach as we try and answer their questions, they’ll take it from Netflix – or worse. Rabbi Kaplan took esoteric concepts and made them easy to understand and relate to, a unique gift that is still clearly applicable today.”
During the event, Rabbi Bashevkin introduced Rabbi Kaplan’s wife, Tobie, and some of their children and grandchildren, who were present at Yarchei Kallah as honored guests of NCSY. Upon their introduction, the teens, unprompted, gave the Kaplan family a standing ovation.
Said NCSY International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland, who attended the Yarchei Kallah, “Rabbi Kaplan’s books are as relevant today as ever. It was incredibly gratifying to see these teens reading, on their own, a copy of Sabbath: Day of Eternity or If You Were God.
Said Rabbi Bashevkin “Any time you republish a book, there’s a lot of minutiae involved that prevents you from appreciating the grandeur of the overall project until much later, but that wasn’t the case here. There was something inherently magical about working on Rabbi Kaplan’s writings to help reintroduce them to a new audience, a process of rediscovery that Rabbi Kaplan stood for in his lifetime. I can think of no greater tribute to his memory, and I’m honored to have had a hand in it.”
To purchase The Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library of Jewish Thought or for more information, please click here.
NCSY Director of Education Dovid Bashevkin addresses teens at the launch of the NCSY Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library
NCSY Director of Education Dovid Bashevkin speaks at the launch of the NCSY Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library
(Facing R-L) NCSY International Director Rabbi Micah Greenland and NCSY Director of Education Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin with members of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s family, including his wife, Tobie, at the the launch of the NCSY Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library
Teens reading the works of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan during the launch of the NCSY Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Library