When Sheldon Caplis’ father died in 1964, it was unheard of for African American mourners to come and sit shiva for a local Jewish man.
“They worked with my father [and] they wanted to pay their respects, told my mother what a fine man he was, how he helped them in their jobs and in their personal life,” Caplis recalled.
Both of Caplis’ parents were very social-justice minded, he said. His father, Joseph, worked alongside and became friends with many African American men through his job at the post office. When two of Joseph’s Black co-workers were unable to get mortgages, he cosigned their home loans.
It was a mindset that Caplis’ parents passed down to him.
Caplis, 70, is currently the chair of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore’s Life and Legacy program, a fundraising program. This role follows decades of experience fundraising for nonprofits and educational institutions and in nonprofit consulting. It was a life path he chose because of the values instilled in him by his parents. He lives in Pikesville with his spouse Jamie, son Jon and daughter Allison. They belong to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Caplis was born in Baltimore and grew up in a house near the corner of West Rogers Avenue and Reisterstown Road. While his father Joseph worked for the postal service, his mother Jenny worked for the State of Maryland as a clerk at the Department of Health. Both Caplis and his brother, Stephen, had their bar mitzvahs at what was then the Rogers Avenue Synagogue. Caplis went to the University of Baltimore for an undergraduate degree in marketing. He received his MBA from Morgan State University.
Afterward, Caplis worked as a fundraiser for over 30 years, first for the University of Baltimore from 1972 to 1993, eventually becoming their vice president for development, then for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from 1993 to 2008.
Caplis worked on a campaign for UMBC that was so successful that Harvard University took note. This eventually helped Caplis make the connections that led to him working at Harvard, where he would periodically train newly hired presidents of different colleges in fundraising through a two-day seminar program.
“[I went from] not having gone to Harvard or an Ivy league school or anything close to that, to walk on the campus and be given a badge that said ‘faculty,’” Caplis said. “I remember taking my badge over to [my mother] and saying ‘Look mom, I’m on the Harvard faculty.’”
“Wow,” Caplis recalled his mother saying to him. “You’ve been to Harvard.”
After his time at UMBC, Caplis worked at Citibank until 2016 as the regional director for community relations, handling their philanthropic efforts in Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Northern Virginia. Caplis has also done consulting on fundraising strategy for nonprofits like Teach for America in 2017 and House of Ruth from 2018 to today.
Caplis’ work as a consultant for the Community College of Baltimore County, which he began in 2018 after years of serving as a board member, was particularly satisfying, he said. He helped their workforce training program connect to funders active in workforce development and training.
“When you train somebody to make a living wage job, you change the whole trajectory of their life,” Caplis said. “It’s not just their life, it’s the life of their children. … It’s given me great purpose.”
As chair of The Associated’s Life and Legacy program, Caplis encourages people to consider making a gift, following their death, to Baltimore’s Jewish community through The Associated. Supporting the community is especially important right now, Caplis said.
“Between the pandemic and the rise of antisemitism this has been a tough few years for all the Jewish communities,” Caplis said. “And for me, it’s an opportunity to make sure that we have the resources in the future.”