While most grandparents enjoy boasting about their grandchildren, how many grandchildren can boast that their grandmother has met presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries? How many grandchildren can say that their grandmother looked an American president in the eye and disagreed with his views on guaranteed loans for Israel?
Deborah Kaplan’s grandchildren can.
As the 20th national president of Hadassah, Ms. Kaplan, who was born in 1926, lived in Teaneck, and died last week at 91, was a truly remarkable role model for her family and everyone who knew her. Pictures of her mother with President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and many others adorn the walls of her daughter’s Teaneck home; Miriam Kaplan Aron’s own children call it her “Hall of Fame.”
Ms. Kaplan’s funeral felt a bit like a Hadassah meeting, filled with members who served beside her and with her; friends and family that came to honor the memory of a woman of valor. An eloquent orator, she was just as comfortable speaking in front of 5,000 people as she was in front of five. Her grandson, Noam Aron, was one of the many people who spoke at her funeral; he talked about being at a Hadassah International convention with his grandmother with his, and seeing how she could capture an audience and hold them mesmerized with her message of devotion to Israel and its people. As a teenager, he was able to see the impact that his grandmother had on others, as well as what she was doing for a country that she held so dear. Noam also mentioned that he was treated as a VIP because he was her grandson. Her other grandchildren who spoke shared those sentiments.
Rabbi Yosef Adler, who heads Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, spoke of how Queen Esther is referred to as “Hadassah” in the megillah, and he compared Ms. Kaplan’s devotion to Hadassah and the State of Israel to Esther’s devotion to her people.
After she arrived in Israel for her installation as president in the summer of 1991, her son-in-law, Mark Aron, said, Ms. Kaplan learned that a plane of Russian immigrants was landing at 2 in the morning. She insisted on arranging for members of the convention to be bused to the tarmac to greet the new olim. She knew that these immigrants didn’t speak Hebrew and were coming to a new land, away from everyone and everyone they knew. “There was no way she wasn’t going to make their introduction to Israel a special one,” Mr. Aron said. “So when the plane arrived, more than 100 Hadassah members greeted the new immigrants. For almost two hours, there was singing and dancing and celebrating on the tarmac. The Hadassah members made the Russian olim “feel special and welcome, because that is how Debbie Kaplan wanted to make everyone feel,” he said.
“She was always looking to help, and the women of Hadassah who came after her owe their opportunities to her,” Mr. Aron concluded.
Ms. Kaplan, who was born in Jersey City and lived in Bayonne until she was 85, came to Zionism naturally.
In 1919, when her part of her family went to the United States from Russia, her grandfather’s brother went to Palestine. She developed a love for Israel at a very young age, and met her beloved husband, Aaron, through Young Judaea, which was Hadassah’s youth movement. She became president of her local Hadassah chapter in Bayonne and later became president of Hadassah’s Northern New Jersey Region. Ms. Kaplan held many national Hadassah offices — among other positions, she was vice president and treasurer, and the coordinator of Hadassah fundraising, education, and Hadassah-International divisions.
Ms. Kaplan climbed the ranks of Hadassah through hard work and dedication, earning her presidency through merit, her son-in-law said.
During her tenure, from 1991 to 1995, Ms. Kaplan accomplished many things, including the building of the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Mother & Child Center, a pediatric research and treatment facility on Hadassah Hospital’s Ein Kerem campus. It was officially opened at the 1995 Hadassah National Convention. The center was named in honor of a longtime Hadassah activist and leader, who also was the mother of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Also under Ms. Kaplan’s leadership, according to a statement from Hadassah, the organization increased its concentration on women’s health and education, spoke out in favor of more AIDS research, and advocated for U.S. loan guarantees for Israel. In 1992, Ms. Kaplan led more than 1,500 Hadassah members from across the United States in the “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, which was organized by the National Organization for Women, better known as NOW. Ms. Kaplan also was the Hadassah representative during the signing of the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1993, as well as the 1995 signing of the peace treaty between Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan.
Even after her tenure as president ended, Ms. Kaplan remained an integral part of Hadassah, leading both events and departments. She chaired the 90th anniversary celebration of the Henrietta Szold Award committee, the planned giving and estates department, and Hadassah’s Jewish National Fund chair. (Henrietta Szold was the founder of Hadassah; in a striking coincidence, she and Kaplan now share a yarzheit — they both died on the same day of the Jewish calendar.)
In 2006, when Hezbollah’s rocket attacks sparked forest fires in northern Israel, Ms. Kaplan led Operation Northern Renewal. She sat down with Jewish National Fund leaders to see what they could do together to make a difference. The operation included the gift of a fire truck to JNF’s firefighting center at Hatzor Haglilit.
In recognition of all that Ms. Kaplan had done, the conference and play area at Hadassah Hospital’s Mother and Child Center was named in her honor, as was the sports center at the Meir Shfeyah Youth Village.
During shiva for her mother, Ms. Kaplan’s daughter, Miriam Aron, said that hundreds of cards, certificates, and emails poured in from around the world. Many of them were from Hadassah friends and colleagues; many described the effect that Debbie had on people’s lives, how she had mentored them, and how she always had exuded warmth and caring. “My mother devoted so much time to Hadassah over the years because of her passion for Israel and the Jewish people,” Ms. Aron said. “As a current member of the national board, I know that her wisdom and advice will be sorely missed at our meetings.”
Ms. Kaplan’s husband, Aaron, died in 2007, her son David died in 2004, and her son Philip died in 1986. She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, Miriam and Marc Aron; her daughters-in-law, Philip’s wife, Sandi Kaplan of Highland Park, Illinois, and David’s wife, Anise Kaplan of Deal; nine grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.