Reading about tragedies in the newspaper would bring a tear to Ralph Kaplan’s eye and inspire him to give tzedakah. “He felt so badly for the families of people who got injured or killed. Most people read it and say wow, but he would literally shed a tear while we sat there and had lunch,” said Larry Burak, CFO of Kappy’s liquors. Burak worked with Kaplan for over 30 years. “It was an honor and a pleasure to work beside him all those years. He was my mentor and the mentor to everyone here at Kappy’s.”
One example Burak gave of Kaplan’s generosity over the years regarded a female employee who was having financial trouble. Kaplan maintained direct contact with her son, who was living in a different state at the time, every so often checking in to see how he was doing. One winter he told Kaplan that he was doing okay but didn’t have a winter coat. “Next thing you know, Ralph, without telling anybody, buys a winter coat and ships it to him,” said Burak. He also provided financial support for the family at times to buy food or other necessities. This was just one example of many in which Kaplan helped his employees and community members over the years, according to Burak.
“He also taught everybody the work ethic, which was paramount,” said Burak. Everyone in the Kaplan family, according to Burak, understands hard work because that is the example Kaplan set for them and for his employees. “He worked right up to his last day of life,” said Burak. Kaplan died last spring.
Kaplan, frequently referred to as Mr. Israel Bonds, was long viewed as one of the pillars of the North Shore Jewish community, both as a philanthropist for his major support of Jewish causes in Greater Boston, and as a businessman for Kappy’s Wine and Spirit stores which dominate the Massachusetts retail liquor industry. But perhaps most importantly, he was known as a family man. “Anybody who knows my dad would tell you that in addition to his business and his philanthropy, family was very important to him,” said Anne Selby, Kaplan’s eldest daughter.
According to Amy Gold, Head of School at Cohen Hillel Academy (CHA), the school received an outpouring of donations from the community, including the Kaplan family. CHA decided to honor Kaplan, a longtime supporter of the school and longstanding board of trustee member, with a community mosaic.
Cohen Hillel Academy conceptualized a memorial mosaic that will make Kaplan’s values, derived from his Jewish heritage, immortal. Kaplan’s wife, Harriett Kaplan, and their four daughters, Anne Selby, Judy Mishkin, Roz Moore and Susan Kaplan, met with Gold, Diane Knopf, Director of Community Engagement, and the artist, Josh Winer. “We were so honored and touched by the outpouring of love that the school wanted to do something to honor my father’s memory,” said Selby of the project.
Winer wanted to hear the family’s perspective about what kind of man Kaplan was. What did his family consider to be his central qualities? How did those qualities intersect with CHA and the vision of this project? “That’s where we came up with the concept of L’dor Va’dor, from generation to generation,” said Selby. “That’s the central theme of the mosaic,” added Gold.
The three core values, pictured in the mosaic, which would be passed down through generations and through the legacy of Kaplan are love of Israel, love of the Jewish community, and love of education. These, among other qualities, were some that inspired the mosaic that now brings color and life to the brick walls of the CHA building. “It’s a very complex design and there’s a lot of meaning behind why we chose everything that’s there,” said Gold. The mosaic was on display Sunday at Cohen Hillel.
The Kaplan family, now in its fourth generation as a family business, works together and celebrates holidays together, something that for some families might cause rifts, but only brings the Kaplan family closer together, according to Selby. Growing up in a working class family with parents who emphasized the importance of hard work and generosity profoundly impacted Kaplan. “My grandfather was also very, very generous to his community in East Boston,” said Selby, “and I think my father just took that to a different level.” Kaplan’s father, though not particularly affluent, understood and taught the importance of performing mitzvot to his son. Leading by example, as Selby said Kaplan did for his own children, his father helped pay for a young boy, ill with cancer, to receive medical treatment, among other generous deeds.
The concept of giving back to the community was so central to who Kaplan was because that was how he was raised. “He was very proud when any of his children or grandchildren also gave tzedakah,” said Selby. A true fixture in the community, Kaplan’s memory will live on in the hearts of those he touched and in a beautiful mosaic that will be a reminder of his values for anyone who sees it. “My father was always there,” said Selby, “He always said ‘If you need me, here I am.’”