‘Titan of Jewish Education’

Louis Kaplan’s son-in-law Efrem Potts, granddaughter JoHanna Potts and daughter Deborah Potts gather to celebrate the dedication of Kaplan’s portrait. (Photo/Stuart Zolotorow)
Louis Kaplan’s son-in-law Efrem Potts, granddaughter JoHanna Potts and daughter Deborah Potts gather to celebrate the dedication of Kaplan’s portrait. (Photo/Stuart Zolotorow)

Displayed prominently at the entrance to the new Joseph Meyerhoff Collection — consisting of more than 70,000 volumes of Jewish history, education and religious practice —  is the visage of the titanic leader of the former Baltimore Heb-rew University: Dr. Louis L. Kaplan. His presence and his legacy loom over this extensive collection now housed on the second floor of the Albert S. Cook Library at Towson University.

Although it was nearly four years ago that the Baltimore Hebrew University merged with Towson and became the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, the collection lay waiting for a new research facility.

Last Sunday, educators, donors, leaders of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, former students and family gathered to dedicate the collection and to honor the generous support of Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff, Jane Kreiger Schapiro and Lowell R. Glazer, and to remember the legacy in education of Kaplan, who died in 1991.

“This community is about memory. And Louis Kaplan was a titan of Jewish education and really revolutionized the way that this community learned,” said Marc Terrill, president of The Associated. “He took risks in how to make education provocative, interesting and engaging. To everybody who learned with him, he was heroic, and they still keep his memory alive.”

Former student and trustee of Baltimore Hebrew College Melvin Sykes reminisced about his relationship with his former teacher in a video tribute presented at the event.

“The most valuable part of the teacher’s teachings are the digressions,” he said. “Because he won’t dig-ress unless it’s on a subject he’s very much interested in, maybe even passionately interested in. And there you get to know more about him and why he has the reputation he has.”

Kaplan came to Baltimore in 1930. Between then and 1970, when he retired as the president of the Baltimore Hebrew College, he established not only the college, but also three synagogues in Baltimore from three streams of Judaism: Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue; Beth El, a conservative synagogue; and Beth Am, a non-denominational synagogue. Kaplan served as the first spiritual leader of Beth Am, and it was this shul that perhaps most represented his philosophy of the universality of Judaism.

Kaplan’s educational philosophy was to question everything, to think about why one did something or behaved in a certain way. Former student Eli Velder related in the video honoring Kaplan’s life that Kaplan once told his students that he skipped a certain paragraph of the morning tefillah [prayers] because he didn’t like what it said. This, to Velder, seemed shocking, but he recognized that it was to prompt his thinking and to question what was around him.

In addition to his involvement with Jewish education in Baltimore, Kaplan also was steeped in higher public
education and was chairman of the board of regents at the University of Maryland and was interim chancellor of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His bridging of Jewish education and secular education is part of the driving force behind the establishment of the partnership between BHI and Towson University.

BHU, now BHI, which Kaplan founded, is housed as an interdisciplinary program within Towson University offering graduate degrees and post-baccalaureate certificate programs.

There are eight full-time faculty — seven came directly from the former BHU — who are now housed within the university’s various departments including philosophy, religious studies and foreign languages. According to Dr. Terry Cooney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Towson, the addition has been a boon to all of its programs, especially religious studies — the only such program in the Maryland state university system.
Now, with the addition of the Joseph Meyerhoff collection, formerly the Meyerhoff Library at BHU, Towson and BHI have not only a state-of-the-art facility for research and curating, but also a base from which to bring the collection to the greater community.

“When Kaplan was around, Jewish education was not a part of public education. There was no Jewish studies in public universities,” said Jill Max, director of the Baltimore Hebrew Institute. “When we came here and brought our graduate programs and post-baccalaureate certificates with us, we were carrying on that tradition of both Jewish education and public education.”

According to Max, the collection will be not only a resource and a focal point of the Cook Library, but also a community resource through white-glove sessions. BHI also hopes that the collection will draw scholars to the university to research its extensive collections and its rare books, some dating to the 16th century.

“When we help someone, we help ourselves more,” Kaplan once said. “For this is how we grow in our personalities.”

Gabriel Lewin is a local freelance writer.

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