Congregation Or Ami honored Michael and Dina Kaplan, synagogue and community leaders, at our Gala on March 1,2008. I spoke these words to them:
Michael and Dina Kaplan individually and as a team have shown us the magic of Judaism. With complimentary sets of skills, they have shined the bright light of hope and possibility into the darkened, and often overwhelming, lives of families whose children struggle with exceptional needs. In the process, they show countless parents, grandparents, relatives, teachers and temples, that children with special needs are exceptional kids, who will inspire us all to hope and dream.
Dina Kaplan Watching Dina move through life, as the very capable lawyer that she is, special needs children’s advocate, creator of the K.E.N. Project, and as mother of Brandon, that exceptional kid who has captured the hearts of our whole congregation, is to see competence, grace and tenacity in action. When faced with situations which would cause most of us to dissolve into tears and become incapacitated by the sheer overwhelming needs before us, you Dina have crafted meaningful solutions which create amazing possibilities for countless kids and families. In the process, you have taught us all – recalcitrant school systems, disbelieving relatives, underprepared teachers, and cautious synagogues – to become our better selves, to open ourselves up to the wonders that each child – able bodied or exceptional – brings into God’s world.
Meandering around Brandon’s Village, we see an amazing lack of difference, as all kinds of children and families find normalcy in the common experience of a day at the park. Walking into Or Ami’s Support Group for Parents of Kids with Special Needs which you facilitate, we see relief spread over the faces of parents who suddenly see possibility through the stress. Grab a siddur and sit in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service for a child with special needs – whether Brandon’s or the many other children who have chanted Torah at Or Ami – thanks, Diane – and we see what you Dina have been advocating all along: that two values are being played out, simultaneously. That each child is a kid like any other kid created in the image of God, worthy of love. And that as special kids, each child brings an honor and joy our community as he participates to the fullness of his abilities.
Dina, that is why we honor you tonight. For bringing the light of possibility into our community and our lives. May generations of exceptional kids and their families soar ever higher because of the amazing wings you have helped them fashion for themselves.
When it became known that Michael Kaplan was joining Congregation Or Ami, I began receiving receive anonymous messages cautioning me about what was in store. They warned me that Michael takes pleasure in terrorizing and teasing young rabbis. They said it would begin slowly, subtly.
First Michael would sit in the front row at services, reciting the prayers with an old world Ashkenazi accent, just loudly enough to break the rabbi’s concentration, even causing me to lose my place or – horror – crack a smile during the Kaddish. They were right; it happened. Then he would take over Chanukah, insisting that we hear his collection of Yiddish Christmas Carols. That too occurred, but thankfully I am spared having to listen to those anymore. Then came the bevy of blackberry text messages, each arriving at a purposely timed, most inopportune moments, offering hysterically inappropriate yet uniquely insightful comments on the discussion at hand.
Finally, in a coup de craziness, he slowly, subtly positioned himself, first joining the board, then working his way up until, elected president, he could claim the prize he had his eye on all along – those precious moments at Yom Kippur, when the president gets to greet the whole congregation. For Michael, his four minutes became fourteen, until, inserting himself into the role of replacement rabbi, he did the unimaginable: he gave a sermonette which, beautifully crafted and masterfully delivered, caused us all to dissolve into tears. I was consumed with worry. “He wants my job,” I said to myself on that Yom Kippur, adding new sinful thoughts to my recently cleansed soul. “This president is after my job.”
Michael Kaplan sees himself as an evangelical, spreading the good word about Or Ami’s special brand of joyous Judaism. Whether at Jerry’s Deli, where Michael holds court to publicizes our excellent Henaynu caring community, or at community functions – Jewish and not so Jewish – where Michael publically pronounces that his shul is the coolest, he is one of Or Ami’s biggest boosters. I regularly receive Michael’s text messages from around the country, in which he shares with me his Shabbat services experiences at Temple Beth Beyond-the-Horizon. Each text ends with the same line: they cannot hold a candle to what we do here at Or Ami. I no longer fear Michael wants my job, because I know that Michael sees his job as creating the room and support for this rabbi – and this congregation – to dream big and imaginatively. And Or Ami has flourished under his leadership.
When not harassing this rabbi, Michael can be found behind the lens of his camera. Whether photographing animals mating at the zoo, people making memorable moments around the community, or children soaking in Jewish spirituality at our shul, Michael is capturing for eternity, those special moments which make life spectacular.
Of course, Michael’s transformational efforts go beyond the walls of Or Ami. With Dina, with their son Brandon and their wonderful families, Michael has ensured that every person he comes in contact with has her needs addressed, because Michael recognizes that each person, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is unique and special. He has created safe communities where people with special needs can turn for support and spirituality. And he promotes efforts which urge us to reach outward to transform our community and our world.
Michael, tonight we honor you, for the way you have touched the lives of so many with your warmth, your stories, and your smile. Under your influence, may Or Ami continue to flourish as we all bring goodness into our world. Mazel Tov!