Two years ago Rabbi Michael and Mira Kaplan were looking for a place where they could make a difference. They found it in Portland. Rabbi Kaplan, then a rabbinic associate at the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx, NY, accepted an invitation from Congregation Ahavath Achim to become its spiritual leader.
“There is a tremendous potential for growth here,” he says. “And people are so excited to become involved in the synagogue.” Charles Levy, president of Ahavath Achim, notes that the search for a rabbi took about three years, in part because it was important to find someone who could meet the needs of what he calls the congregation’s diverse membership.
Founded in 1916 Ahavath Achim has long been a center for Sephardic Jews from many communities – the Isle of Rhodes, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Israel and more – and also has attracted Ashkenazi and other Jews who like the Sephardic style of services.
Kaplan understands and appreciates the diversity. Though he and his wife come from Ashkenazi backgrounds, Kaplan grew up in the Syrian Sephardic community of Deal, NJ, where his family adopted the Sephardic customs of his Syrian-Jewish stepfather.
“We’re a combination of Ashkenazi and Sephardic,” he says of his family, which includes daughter, Dina, 7, and son, Yoel, 6, both students at Maayan Torah Day School. And that blend extends to the congregation, which conducts Yizkor (memorial) services on the major holidays – an Ashkenazi custom. However, he notes, the melodies used in the services and the food at free community Shabbat lunches are strictly Sephardic. “We have a commitment to keeping the Sephardic culture alive – and this is what attracts people,” he says. Since his arrival before the High Holy Days in 2011, he has been working to strengthen the congregation and inspire its members and visitors.
He has revamped the congregation’s website and electronic communications (he has a background in computer science), seen attendance at Shabbat services grow to about 20 to 25 each week, taught classes on a variety of subjects, collaborated with other community endeavors and worked with the congregation’s board on plans for the future.
“We want to create a welcoming environment, where everyone is comfortable,” he says. “And to do whatever good we can do.” Kaplan, 30, is the only one of his siblings – two brothers and three stepsisters – to become a Jewish community professional. And it was not something he set out to do. He initially thought he would work in computers or in business, and still maintains his certification in computer networking. But his experiences in a Jewish day school, the Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshiva University and its Bernard Revel Graduate School led him to seek rabbinic ordination and opportunities for Jewish community service.
“Every day in the evening prayers, we say ‘Ki hem chayeinu’ – ‘this is our life source,’ ” he says. “It seemed hypocritical not to take it seriously.” So instead of being a computer programmer who would study on the side, he became a rabbi with an expertise in computers.
Before coming to Portland, he worked in family and divorce mediation, including a stint as executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (women unable to receive a Jewish divorce), as a kosher supervisor, a lecturer in the Beit Midrash of YU’s affiliated Stern College, and as a rabbinic intern and later associate at the Riverdale Jewish Center. He also holds a master’s degree in Medieval Jewish Studies.
Mira Kaplan, also 30, grew up on Staten Island, NY, earned a doctorate in physical therapy at Touro College and works at Infinity Rehab in Wilsonville. They live in the Corbett neighborhood, near Ahavath Achim, but plan to move to the Hillsdale area to be closer to the center of the city’s Jewish community. “We want to take in more of that Jewish environment, and add what we can to that tapestry,” he says. He hopes Ahavath Achim eventually will relocate to the area around the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, which he says is part of the congregation’s long-term plan.
For now, however, Kaplan wants to continue to strengthen his congregation and continue to make a contribution to his new community. “We want to develop religious growth for ourselves and for everyone,” he says. “And we feel we’re paving the way toward that goal.”
Sura Rubenstein is a Portland fre