Wallingford Rabbi Connects with Masonicare's Jewish Community
By Adam Raider
Rabbi Baruch Kaplan does not drive on the Sabbath or during holidays like Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), among others. On those occasions, to provide spiritual care to residents at Masonicare Health Center, he must walk to the campus from his home off Center Street. Those familiar with the topography of hilly Wallingford know that's a schlep.
Along with his wife, Raizy, Rabbi Kaplan is co-director of Chabad of Wallingford, a Jewish community center offering religious services and adult education. Chabad is a worldwide Orthodox Jewish movement that began in America over 60 years ago and is headquartered in Brooklyn, NY. Chabad families are encouraged to become part of the broader community so they can better understand its people and needs.
A New Jersey native, Rabbi Kaplan comes from a family of rabbis. His grandfather led a large congregation in Brooklyn and his father works in education.
"A mixture of things brought me to Connecticut," he explained. "My wife and I were each offered teaching jobs at Southern Connecticut Hebrew Day School in Orange. But then we wondered, 'What are we going to do with our free time?' We were inspired by the legacy of the late Rabbi Schneerson, leader of the Chabad movement, who opened the door to an idea that makes so much sense and resonates so strongly with many of us. It's a calling that asks, 'What can you do to help your brothers and sisters?'"
The Kaplans spoke with Rabbi Sheya Hecht, Chabad director for the Greater New Haven area and headmaster at the Hebrew Day School, about their desire to set aside time to perform the outreach that is central to Chabad. He was receptive to the idea, and in fact mentioned Wallingford as a community that might benefit from it.
"We began to reach out to Jews from all walks of life," Rabbi Kaplan said, "to see if we can offer anything that might enhance their connection with God or their religion."
In September 2014, the young rabbi decided to take a walk up to Masonicare Health Center to meet with Jewish residents who had been unable to attend Rosh Hashana services.
"In that first visit," he recalled, "I just walked in and asked if there were any Jewish residents who might like to pray or hear the shofar (an instrument, usually made from a ram's horn). There were maybe four or five people and we gathered in a hallway. The next year, there were 20. It's continued to grow from there, and now I'm at the Health Center every holiday. It started as me wanting to do something extra but has, in my mind, taken on added importance because I've recognized what can be accomplished. You see the wonderful response … and the need."
Masonicare Health Center may not have a large Jewish population, but Rabbi Kaplan appreciates that Masonicare is committed to accommodating residents and patients of all faith traditions. A meal kosher for Passover was catered so that he could lead a Seder for residents.
"Sometimes, you make services available because there's a large population," he said. "But, the opposite might be true as well. A smaller group might feel isolated. Even amongst friends, you might feel disconnected. But what are the things that come back to you when you're older? It's the traditions, the history. So I want to do things that will give residents an opportunity to come together and feel Jewish."
Because as many as half the people who attend his services at the Health Center are not Jewish, Rabbi Kaplan explores messages and themes that are more universal in nature.
"A lot of people are coming to learn about the background of Jewish customs," he said. "That's helped me think more globally. Take Hanukkah. It's really about believing in something, about standing up for what you believe. When I'm at Masonicare Health Center, I might tie in the idea of the Hanukkah lights representing kindness. The spreading of light, like the spreading of smiles, can be tremendous."
Rabbi Kaplan's visits to the Wallingford campus have not been limited to holidays. He's offered spiritual support for residents who have experienced loss, and has been asked to hold regular Bible classes.
Even if not every person who attends one of his services is able to vocalize a question or a word of thanks, Rabbi Kaplan said the experience of helping create a greater sense of community has been rewarding.
"One of the difficulties of working with this population," he said, "especially those who may be suffering from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, is wondering 'What am I going to say to them?' But what I try to do is not talk down to anyone. Even if someone is only able to zone in on me for a moment, they don't want to be spoken to like a child. I speak to them about ideas, very basic ideas, in a way in which they will feel respected like the mature adults they are. I'm sure to repeat things they might already know. And on those occasions when I don't get any feedback, I might turn to a song. You see the faces light up, and that means a lot to me."