Some people see the world in black or white, possibly shades of gray. Rochel Kaplan saw the colors of G‑d’s creation in every aspect of the world around her, and the beauty in every person she met.

G‑d gives us a world that is like a coloring book with the pages outlined in black. My mother walked around with a big, creative paintbrush creating the most beautiful hues and strokes,” said one of her eight children, Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan, director of Chabad of Franklin Lakes. N.J. “That was her personality, to see beauty and creativity everywhere. Everywhere she went and with every interaction she had, she left her mark—her beauty, her creativity and her unique touch.”

For more than 50 years, Rochel Kaplan and husband, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, led the Chabad Center and Lubavitch of Maryland where they have inspired, educated and elevated thousands of Jewish men and women. Rochel Kaplan passed away Monday, 19 Shevat (Jan. 29). She was 69 years old.

People who knew her say she was refined and dignified and had a way of making everyone her best friend within moments of meeting. Those connections fostered not just a kinship, but an inspiration in their Jewish practice.

Eight years ago, Sheri Heller and her husband were attending Shabbat morning services at the home of Kaplan’s son and daughter-in-law Rabbi Mendel and Chana Kaplan in Potomac Village, Md. Rochel Kaplan happened to be there that Shabbat visiting and stood beside Heller throughout the service.

“There was lots of commotion because people would come in and out and kids would run around, and she was sitting with her siddur and her lips were moving as she prayed. I had never seen that before,” said Heller. “She davened (prayed) with such intention, such sincerity and concentration I was completely blown away and envious.

“I was inspired by her,” Heller continued. “It just exemplified the beautiful relationship she had with G‑d. I carried that memory and it has driven me for years and years. Since that time I’ve made many changes in how I pray, and in the back of my mind is Rebbetzin Kaplan and her davening.”

“She always treated me warmly and was very approachable, very beautiful, very regal and warm, and very bright.” Heller continued. “But that focus and concentration—I was in awe.”

“My mother threw herself into her shlichus with gusto and authenticity,” said Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan. “She was the same on the inside and outside, and she made every interaction a memorable one. There wasn’t a single person who met her who could have forgotten her.”

Kaplan with her mother, Mrs. Chaya Hecht
Kaplan with her mother, Mrs. Chaya Hecht

A Young Scholar and Poet

Rochel Kaplan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1954 to Rabbi Peretz and Chaya Hecht. She grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood and attended Bais Rivka, the Lubavitch girls school in Crown Heights, home to the Chabad-Lubavitch community. She dedicated her latest book of poems to her parents, who, she told last year, “taught me by example how to accept life challenges, gracefully, faithfully and lovingly.”

She said she was drawn to books from an early age, and appreciated both their content and form. “I am a typesetter’s daughter, and I know what the printed word is about. I appreciate the quality of the written page,” she said.

Young Rochel was a straight-A student and the valedictorian of her graduating class. School papers that she saved over the years and shared with her children and grandchildren show a girl who was dedicated to her Torah studies and determined to live a life guided by the principles of Chabad.

Petite, with blonde hair and blue eyes, she often stood out among her peers. Rather than shrink back, she stood forward proudly to encourage people to do mitzvahs.

She and her husband were married in 1972. A few years later, in 1974, with the blessings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the young couple moved to Baltimore and established a home for Chabad-Lubavitch and a place where all Jews could feel welcome. Today, there are more than 30 Chabad centers throughout Maryland, some of them directed by the Kaplans’ children.

Kaplan, second from left, had a way of making everyone her best friend within moments of meeting them.
Kaplan, second from left, had a way of making everyone her best friend within moments of meeting them.

Wherever she went, Kaplan would do her best to encourage people to do mitzvahs. There was the young mother Kaplan met one morning when she was dropping her grandchildren off at preschool. The two struck up a conversation—one that lasted only a few minutes—but it had such an impact that the young woman began to visit the mikvah, ritual bath, every month.

But it wasn’t just women.

“I would guess there are thousands and thousands of men who put on tefillin because of my mother,” said Chanoch Kaplan, “My mother wins the gold medal for the woman who inspired the most men to put tefillin.”

Kaplan ran many endeavors to help others and encourage people in their Judaism. Among the many programs she founded and ran were the Mikvah Mei Menachem and the Aleph Learning Institute. At the time of her passing, Kaplan had been working on plans for a new Aleph center, which she called “an all-encompassing community Jewish learning institute for Jewish men and women.”

In addition, she was quietly involved in several charitable efforts, including a program to restore houses in disrepair, and another to provide wigs to cancer patients.

Rabbi Shmuel and Rochel Kaplan
Rabbi Shmuel and Rochel Kaplan

A poet, she published two books of poetry in recent years. Her poems, she said, were simply an extension of her soul.

“I write from my own life experiences, my own challenges; I allude to it. I find with poetry—any writing, but poetry for sure—you are writing from your depths. Speaking my truth, it comes automatically,” she told last year after her second collection of poems was released.

Her latest book of poems, Triumph of Truth: Poetic Words to Express and Empower When You are Speechless, followed her first book of poems published in 2021, G‑d in the Details. The second volume includes 144 brief poems focused on finding inspiration during times of struggles and challenges

The poems speak about how to get up each day and face an increasingly challenging and complicated world, yet one that is filled with the most wonderful things—love, work, faith, friendship, beauty, hope and family. The poems convey profound truths she experienced as a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.

“My children and grandchildren are my assets, my lottery and my wealth,” she told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 2021. “G‑d in his great mercy provides. When He gives offspring, he provides for their needs. We must work hard at caring for His children, as we partner together to make this world an abode for G‑d to dwell with us.”

In addition to her husband, Rochel Kaplan is survived by their children, Rabbi Levi Kaplan, Pomona, N.Y. ; Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan, Franklin Lakes, N.J.; Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, Potomac Village, Md.; Devorah Leah Riesenberg, Pomana, N.Y.; Chani Feldman, Greenwich, Conn.; Esther Kavka, Rockville, Md.; Mushka Minkowitz, Chevy Chase, Md.; and Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan, Baltimore, Md.; and many grandchildren.

She is also survived by her siblings, Rivkah Piekarski, Rabbi Shea Hecht, Shterna Weinberg, Devorah Halberstam-Ingber, Faigy Carlebach, Brocha Karp and Rabbi Yisrael Hecht.

The Kaplan family gathers for a wedding.
The Kaplan family gathers for a wedding.