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An Eternal Friendship

How an unlikely business meeting on 9/11 grew into a brotherhood, forged by Torah and the practice of Judaism

Raphael B. Butler
October 28, 2016
Jamie Squire /Allsport
The New York City skyline, September 5, 2001. Jamie Squire /Allsport
Jamie Squire /Allsport
The New York City skyline, September 5, 2001. Jamie Squire /Allsport

Sometime in late August 2001, as I was seeking to build my brand of programs of service, I sought the counsel of friends in the field of marketing and program design to identify the firm I should hire in developing the mission statement and initial promotional materials. Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald encouraged me to meet with Robert Kaplan, a man who had successfully developed the Shabbat Across America campaign. Robert was scheduled to meet me in my office in downtown Manhattan at 9 a.m on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The evening before, Robert called. He said that, while it was highly irregular for him to make such a request, he wanted to know whether I would mind meeting in his office rather than in mine; he had a series of meetings scheduled and he would appreciate my accommodating him. As the Twin Towers fell a few feet from my John Street building on 9/11, I was safe with Robert in midtown.

Instead of a brief one-hour initial meeting we bonded as brothers for the entire day, exploring our life journeys. It was in those initial hours of conversation that Robert shared with me the life experiences that brought him to all corners of the globe—but almost never to a synagogue. With Rosh Hashanah just a few days away, I invited Robert to join in services that I would be leading in Queens. Robert joined for the second day and sat mesmerized during the service and Torah reading. He listened, rapt, to the shofar blasts—which he had never experienced before.

The following day, I received a poem which Robert wrote reflecting on his first Rosh Hashanah experience. Playing off the Akeida story of the binding of Isaac, Robert penned the poem from the perspective of the donkey accompanying Abraham to the Akeida—the donkey’s being part of something historic and meaningful yet unable to come to understand what had transpired. Robert creatively wove the various threads of his Akeida day—the sermon, the service, the shofar, the Kohein’s communal blessing—all new and confusing yet poetic.

I had referred him to various educational organizations to share his expertise. He always insisted on absorbing the message of the school from within. He would attend classes, eat with the students in the dining hall, become one with them—only then would he creatively develop a story line for the institution to follow. What inadvertently occurred was that these Torah messages were resonating not only in producing creative marketing materials but in slowly redefining Robert.

After many years of attending my Rosh Hashanah service, Robert informed me that he would no longer be traveling on the holidays and he will therefore remain local in his Rockland County community. Robert adopted his Hebrew name, Yerachmiel. The priestly blessings that so intrigued him in 2001 became the blessings Yerachmiel Kaplan, the kohein offered to his community. He learned to read and understand that which he read as he continued to share his creative expertise, at times for little or no compensation.

This past Simchat Torah, Yerachmiel found himself in the middle of the circle dancing and holding the Torah that he had grown to love. He danced and danced with the younger students dancing around him as he clutched his beloved Torah scroll. As the Hakafah ended, he kept dancing and the circle kept dancing along with him. Suddenly, with a smile on face, Yerachmiel, holding his Torah, fell to the ground and passed away.

Our 15-year journey together has ended but Yerachmiel Kaplan’s inspiration continues.

May his memory be blessed.

Rabbi Raphael B. Butler is the President of The Afikim Foundation, an incubator of creative communal and educational programs serving the Jewish community worldwide.

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