Burton Kaplan had nine lives; alas, he did not have ten. I don’t know anyone else who ever fought more serious illnesses, and more types of serious illnesses, over a longer period of time, more than Burton Kaplan. At his funeral, Rabbi Yaakov Meyer and Burton’s son highlighted how the Angel of Death took a real beating from Burton Kaplan. Every time the Angel of Death appeared on Burt’s doorstep, he was knocked down and defeated — until last Friday, when Burt Kaplan died at the age of 84.
Burton was such an inspiration to everyone who is suffering from serious illness. His relentless love of life, as one of the eulogists put it, perfectly embodied the Torah’s imperative, “Choose life!”
Burton and Sharon Kaplan were one of those couples who, when one speaks, the other finishes the sentence. But it was so much more than speaking. When one got involved in a public or private act of kindness, the other followed through. So it went, in one endless circle of sequentially devised and executed acts of kindness, not the least of which were endless acts of hospitality.
Like the patriarch Abraham, Burton was literally pained if his home lacked guests, especially children. And so, he and his wife Sharon set out to remedy the situation, reaching out for guests, time and again.
I’m not just talking about picking someone up from shul for a Shabbat meal. No, what I am talking about will sound like it’s about a grandfatherly character straight out of a novel.
Sharon and Burton became empty nesters. Burton, lonesome for his children whom he loved dearly and who were the focus of his life and he in turn theirs, decided he wanted to host a Shabbaton for girls in the community. This way, in between the visits of his own grandchildren, the Kaplan house would still be humming with the laughter and warmth of children. As soon as he shared his idea with Sharon, plans went into high gear. Sharon, in her typical “hostess with the mostess” fashion, crossed every t and dotted every i.
Beautiful and formal invitations were printed and sent out. A proper program and schedule of events were drawn up. Each girl was expected to prepare and share her own dvar Torah. Meanwhile, Sharon was preparing her typical delectable Shabbos, replete with gourmet meals, pastries and treats galore. It was a proper slumber party, a sleepover Shabbaton, but instead of being sponsored by a synagogue or a youth organization, it was simply the outpouring of the grandparenting spirit that personified Burton and Sharon Kaplan.
This first Shabbaton launched the joy of many more. For a number of years, it became an annual event for girls in the community from across the board; everyone regardless of synagogue membership, school or religious affiliation, was invited.
And who didn’t want to come? It became the Shabbos event in the neighborhood that the girls looked forward to all season long.
I still remember hearing all about it, long distance, from one of my younger sisters who, together with her friends, took part in it.
At that young adolescent age, being invited as a formal guest, on your own, into the home of your parents’ friends, meant a lot!
The girls all slept in the basement and had the time of their lives. Mind you, many of these girls saw one another on a regular basis, be it at school, synagogue or other events. But to be together on their own, no parents, no teachers, no counselors, just the unconditional love of Burton and Sharon Kaplan, well, only the Kaplans could have thought of such an idea.
I should mention too, this was no ordinary basement. We’re talking about a basement with the charm of a proper, old fashioned, 1950s vintage ice cream parlor soda fountain! Burton remembered the times when he, as a little boy, couldn’t afford the penny or nickel to buy whatever that day’s soda fountain delight was on offer. This always stayed with him, so he decided that one day he would have a proper retro soda fountain in his own home.
Burton took great pride and affection in serving children ice cream. Donning a special apron reserved for the important occasion. Burton held court as he scooped ice cream orbs into retro Depression-era glasses, banana split boats, stemmed sundae dishes or tall milk shake float parfait glasses.
Clearly, this was a formal, planned event. But so many of Burton and Sharon’s acts of lovingkindness were more modest, behind the scenes, or impromptu. Your child needs to be picked up from school? “I’ll do it.” Your child needs some encouragement? “I’ll be there.” An elderly friend is homebound? “I’m on my way over with a platter of home baked cakes in hand.”
Not to mention, Burton was involved with many community matters. He was strongly involved in BMH, Keshet of the Rockies, Allied Jewish Federation (today JEWISHcolorado), EDOS, RMHA (today DJDS), DAT and others.
Dealing in community activism can, at times, be a bumpy ride. It can sometimes create tensions. With Burton, there was never any controversy about his participation. Like everyone else, Burton had his opinions, but he addressed matters substantively and was an attentive listener to those who differed from his position. He wasn’t one to let things bother him when things didn’t go his way. Burton was the type of communal leader we could all learn from.
Burton was devoted to prayer and daily Torah study throughout so many difficult years of illness despite the challenge this would pose to anyone’s concentration. But Burt remained steadfast. His dedication, and the dedication of his dear friends, made it possible for him to maintain his religious practices, even when the going truly did get rough. He wouldn’t miss a Daf Yomi (daily Talmud page) class even if it meant a friend making it up with him at his hospital bedside.
Poignantly, one of Burton’s daughters shared that her father was given the opportunity to recite one of the Seven Blessings under the chuppah at one of his children’s weddings. He declined. He explained: “My parents never lived to see their own children married. My brother never lived to see his children’s Bar Mitzvahs. I was blessed, in my lifetime, to be at my children’s weddings and at their children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I’ve been blessed! Let the blessing under the chuppah pass on to the next person.”
“Kosi revayah, my cup runneth over,” King David writes in Psalm 23. In a society where entitlement, greed and a sense of insatiableness is pervasive, be it in material or even in spiritual matters, Burton Kaplan modeled a sense of modesty and humility that enabled him to have immense clarity and gratitude for what he had been given. He illuminated and embodied a new meaning of kosi revayah in this story of the blessing under the chuppah. From Burton’s perspective, “my cup runneth over” did not mean objectively ticking off a list of desired tangibles or intangibles and then feeling an overflow of gratitude once you have them all.
Rather, Burton, by passing up another blessing, passed it on to someone else.
In a nutshell, that was Burton Kaplan — passing on blessings.
And now he has passed on — leaving us all with the blessing of his life. Encapsulated most perfectly in the image of him in his apron-ed ice cream regalia, smiling, scooping out the next ice cream sundae, making another child so happy.
Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News