Flitting around the Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland building with the busy energy of a hummingbird, Rochelle Kaplan, founder and director of the Aleph Learning Institute, set out warm drinks on a very cold day in anticipation of her students. The latest snowfall and frigid weather did not deter her, as the full-day program of Aleph Wednesdays — The Power of One was about to begin, somewhat surprisingly, with a yoga and Pilates class led by certified fitness trainer Malkie Raskas.
“We have to be strong, we have to be healthy,” said Kaplan. “You have to exercise and strengthen the body to be able to serve God, because it removes illness, it prevents illness. [Aleph Wednesdays] is a well-balanced program.”
Aleph Wednesdays is the latest offering developed by Kaplan, and it is a special feature of the Aleph Learning Institute, which she launched in 2011. An amalgam of one-on-one and group study courses, lectures, cooking classes and self-help workshops, the institute offers a smorgasbord of topics open to all who are interested. Customized learning and an unconventional approach are also hallmarks of the program.
Aleph Wednesdays asks that attendees commit one entire day each week to study. The program was designed to incorporate “heart, mind, space and spirit.” It was developed, in part, because Kaplan saw her personal need to devote more time to Torah and study.
“It’s not making time for me. It’s making time for God,” she explained. “We all are here for a purpose. We get so busy with earning a living, just being able to live. We’re so consumed, we don’t even have a focus or direction. And as a Jewish person, we have a soul purpose.”
Kaplan’s intense dedication has helped make her a driving force in the Jewish community since she arrived. Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, lead Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland and have been in the Baltimore area almost 40 years. The center also offers a prescribed set of courses that are based on a curriculum created by the Jewish Learning Institute, the international adult education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. Those courses are developed separate from, but incorporated into, the Aleph Learning Institute curriculum.
One difference at the Aleph Learning Institute, said Kaplan, is the personalization and customization of studies. The institute accommodates individuals, friends and family members on any topic and for any type of class; anything is feasible, she said. “We really want to extend ourselves to the community and make ourselves available.”
One of the most popular offerings is Aleph Partners, which consists of one-on-one study with Kaplan.
Hillary Wohl, 58, has studied one on one with Kaplan and is a student of the Aleph Learning Institute. A speech and language pathologist, Wohl is an adjunct professor at Loyola University Maryland and serves on the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. She and her husband, Joel, are members of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
“Chabad takes you wherever you are,” said Wohl, who has known Kaplan for many years and has studied more formally with her for the past five years. “You don’t have to know anything. The fact that you’re a Jew is all that matters. People have lost sight of what Judaism is and the gift of it. … I think Chabad is teaching people the gift of Judaism.”
The courses and workshops offered by the Aleph Learning Institute are all based upon Jewish concepts and law but cover a wide range of topics. Money Matters and Personal Investments, the Kabbalah of Food, Bride and Groom the Jewish Way, Nature’s Wealth and Study of the Book of Tanya are a few course titles.
Rachel Gutman, 32, is enrolled in Aleph Wednesdays — The Power of One. Gutman, a member of the Chabad congregation in Pikesville, works part time and takes care of her two children. She makes time in her schedule to attend yoga and Pilates, Kabbalah classes and a Torah Studies class for women.
“The power of one means many things,” said Gutman. “I take it as the power of one decision, one person to grow their spiritual well-being, that’s enough to change them internally. To be open to it — the power within yourself to learn and connect to Hashem.”
The Aleph Learning Institute isn’t Kaplan’s first grand effort. In 2009, she created an annual event called the Jewish Victims of Terror Project; she also raised funds and assembled the design team needed to build a mikvah at the Chabad Center that is open to the whole community. The center recently celebrated the mikvah’s 10-year anniversary.
“After that project and [other] things were underway, I wanted to get into adult education,” said Kaplan. Getting Jews to be more aware of their Judaism is core to Kaplan’s, and Chabad’s, work. Her energy is contagious, and she takes any opportunity to connect with another Jew.
“Let’s put it this way: I’m a campaigner — you know on the road, in the store, anywhere,” she said with a laugh. “That’s me. I’m for the people, with the people, and I also feel like I’m learning from everyone else. … And you have to understand, my husband and I dedicate our lives to educating Jewish people.”
Kaplan’s long-range plans for the Aleph Learning Institute ultimately include an additional building to be erected behind the current synagogue that will house the institute on the second floor. But the courses and events offered now are an effort to cultivate more Jewish learning in the community and work toward that bigger goal.
“It’s the building before the building, meaning if two Jews meet and they think about Torah, this is a big accomplishment,” explained Kaplan, whose gestures and voice accelerate when talking about the institute’s future. “You never know the ripple effect.”