There are times when simple words are not good enough or sharp enough to get across a message. How can you thank a person that has given so much of himself, not only to a community, but especially to you? It is hard to even begin to classify the relationship that I have with Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. Is he my rabbi? Teacher? Friend? Role model? As I am only a few weeks away from graduation, I am absolutely convinced that Rabbi Kaplan is exactly what Judaism needs in order to continue to be the inspiring and positively influential religion that it has always been.
It is ironic to note that upon arriving at UCLA, I was very skeptical about Rabbi Kaplan’s ability to be an effective Jewish educator. Without going into too much about annoying Jewish politics, many of my rabbis were very biased against graduates from the specific yeshivas that Rabbi Kaplan attended. I am sad to admit that four years ago, I let my rabbis get the best of me, and I began UCLA pathetically thinking that I was too good for the rabbi.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how wrong I had been. My first year at UCLA was a tough one, but I knew that there was always one person whom I could count on for help. It is truly amazing how much time and patience Rabbi Kaplan has for each and every student. Until this very day, I can call him at random times, whether it be late into the night or during spring break, and never once has he told me that he was too busy.
Perhaps it was Rabbi Kaplan’s middot (character traits) that ultimately shaped my views of him. The Torah and Talmud have many explicit statements attesting to the ultimate importance of treating every human being respectfully, but sadly most of these teachings have, for one reason or another, been lost to many in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Kaplan is the true definition of what it means to be a religious Jew: someone who is wholeheartedly devoted to upholding the valuable Jewish tradition, with all its intricate laws, but simultaneously understands how important the needs of each and every individual are. This is something that cannot be learned in a school or yeshivah, but rather takes years of hard work. As Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin of Salant, founder of the mussar (moral and ethics) movement, used to say, “It is easier to learn the entire Talmud, than to change one negative trait about one’s character.” Amazingly, the man I call my rabbi has been able to do both.
The first few times I heard Rabbi Kaplan use the word “optimal” at JLIC, I thought that it was a cute joke. It was only years into our relationship that I began to truly understand the meaning behind his most frequent saying. It is no surprise that in many religious circles, the secular world is shunned and marked as wicked, with community leaders encouraging as little interaction as possible. I cannot even count the number of times that I got into arguments with my rabbis about the fact that I chose to go to a “secular college” after yeshivah. When my rabbis realized that they would be unable to change my mind, they started giving me tips on how to “survive.”
The initial picture I was given of college is that I would be swimming against an upwards current, trying to retain my identity as a Jew. I came into college nervous and scared, thinking that every person or event on campus was a potential attack on my religious wellbeing. But when Rabbi Kaplan uses the word optimal, he means that the entire situation of Jewish students attending UCLA is ideal. Rabbi Kaplan understands the importance of getting a good secular education while still being a part of a Jewish community — and he has devoted his life to this exact mission.
Rabbi Kaplan has made an active and ongoing decision that his mission in life is to work with college students: not to mindlessly brainwash them, but trying to help, inspire and teach them. His goal is not to convince anyone of anything but rather to help each and every person in any way that they need. I have watched countless times as various students and community members interact with Rabbi Kaplan in a rude and disrespectful manner (some times not even realizing that he is a rabbi), and Rabbi Kaplan has never even shown a faint sign of offense. I have personally gotten into countless disagreements with Rabbi Kaplan and rather than writing me off as being disrespectful (as many of my past rabbis have) and trying to silence me, he is always there, excited to hear my opinions, with an open mind as big as his heart.
Rabbi Kaplan has served UCLA longer than any other JLIC educator at other universities and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. He views his job as a UCLA educator as ideal, and although he has almost certainly been offered many prestigious jobs in a Jewish setting, he understands the importance of what he does on this campus. In return, I feel that this article was necessary to let him know just how valuable he is to not only me, but to the entire UCLA community.
After four years of learning, talking, laughing and just chilling with Rabbi Kaplan, I can truly say I am grateful to have had such a great man as my rabbi. Watching how Rabbi Kaplan interacts with the world has taught me more than any book can even dream of doing. Although I could continue writing for hours, I wish to conclude with one of my all time favorite quotes that I feel epitomizes Rabbi Kaplan:
Be of the disciples of Aaron [the High Priest] ― a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12)