Rebbetzin Rochel Kaplan, the head Chabad shlucha of Maryland and co-director at Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland for over 50 years, who was known for her extensive and longstanding work in the Jewish community and her impactful writings, died on Monday, Jan. 29, at the age of 69.
Kaplan was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to Maryland in 1974 with her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan. For 50 years, the pair was the major driving force behind the creation of 32 Chabad centers around the state, according to a March 2021 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times.
“If Chabad epitomizes welcoming the stranger, Rebbetzin Rochel Kaplan has been a dedicated ambassador,” Haydee M. Rodriguez wrote in the JT article.
“She was called on and she did that diligently, faithfully, for over 50 years. I think that, in the shortest nutshell, exemplifies really who she was. That she was a person that was there for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, Rebbetzin Kaplan’s son.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, who directs Chabad of South Baltimore, said that his mother was not a typical rebbetzin and that was one of the things that made her so special. He added that she was quietly involved in several charitable efforts, including starting a program called House into Homes, where they restored houses that were in various states of disrepair, and one business selling wigs to cancer patients.
“My mother was an action person. She wasn’t a talking person — she was an acting person,” Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan said.
Rebbetzin Kaplan’s penchant for action extended to her over 50 years of work establishing Chabad in Maryland along with her husband, and a strong passion for promoting education in the state.
Rebbetzin Kaplan’s efforts in Maryland included roles as the founder and director of the Aleph Learning Institute for adult education and director of Mikvah Mei Menachem of Baltimore, which was created for Jewish brides and married women.
The Aleph Learning Institute provides ongoing educational opportunities for adults and was created in large part due to a serious push from the rebbetzin over a decade ago to launch it. She described the center in the 2021 JT article as “an all-encompassing community Jewish learning institute for Jewish men and women.”
She was also known for her writing, and she published two poetry books titled “G-d in the Details” and “Triumph of Truth: Poetic Words to Express and Empower When You are Speechless.” The works were both completed in the last several years and included poems that largely featured themes and topics about her life and the challenges she faced.
She told the JT in 2021 that the inspiration behind her work, “G-d in the Details,” was due to her connection with God and drawn from her personal history.
“I guess you can say the Almighty put the ‘pen’ into my hand, and my knowledge, life experiences and challenges became the script, also scripted by God,” she said. “I feel that I have a message I would like to impart along the path I was sent to share, what I’ve gleaned, learnt and the inferences I managed to tease out.”
Kaplan was also a key figure behind the release of the Pikesville Times in 2021, a free publication that she described as a source of food for thought where “everyone could learn something,” she told the JT at the time.
One of their first issues had a section dealing with loss during the pandemic, leading Kaplan to reflect on the loss of her brother-in-law and an uncle during that time. She told the JT that while the pandemic impacted her and many others in “life-altering ways,” she took strength from the Almighty and wouldn’t take life for granted.
Outside of her public life, she was a beloved mother of eight children and a grandmother.
“My children and grandchildren are my assets, my lottery and my wealth,” she told the JT in 2021. “God in his great mercy provides. When he gives offspring, he provides for their needs. We must work hard at caring for his children, as we partner together to make this world an abode for God to dwell with us.”
Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan said that his mother provided an example of inspiring confidence that he has tried and will continue to try to incorporate into his everyday life.
“My mother was so deeply confident in the work that she was doing and the calls that she was doing, and the purpose and the meaning in her life,” he said. “[With] what she was trying to do, and her faith in God, there was no embarrassment. There was no timidness. She went full force.”
Kaplan is survived by her husband Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan; their children Rabbi Levi Kaplan, Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan, Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, Devorah Leah Riesenberg, Chani Feldman, Esther Kavka, Mushka Minkowitz and Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan; and her grandchildren.
She is also survived by her siblings Rivkah Piekarski, Rabbi Shea Hecht, Shterna Weinberg, Devorah Halberstam-Ingber, Faigy Carlebach, Brocha Karp and R’ Yisrael Hecht.