Feb 24, 2012
By Susan Varghese
Standard Associate Editor
Every Saturday afternoon in the 1920’s, Gilbert Klaperman and his mother would walk from their home near Central Park to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ready to explore, ready to learn something new.
“What’s this?” his mother would ask, pointing to a work of art. She arrived from Poland only a few years prior, unable to read. Bright-eyed, brown-haired Klaperman would do his best to figure out some words in the description and read them aloud. When it would rain, his mother would take him to the local library instead, and ask the librarian for a book for him to read.
This was only the beginning of Klaperman’s life long inquisitiveness. It eventually led him to become the figure that he’s well known for, Rabbi Dr. Gilbert Klaperman, Esq.: the founding rabbi of Beth Sholom in Lawrence, and the person who helped start what is now the Hebrew Academy of The Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR).
Klaperman, 91, will be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award during HAFTR’s 34th dinner ceremony on Saturday evening, February 25th.
The current chairman of HAFTR, Josh Wanderer noted Klaperman’s contribution to the school and community. “Without him there would not have been a HAFTR. When he first came here, the Jewish community was nothing like it is now. He helped build Beth Sholom…there was no local Jewish day school…It’s no exaggeration to say that without Rabbi Klaperman there would be no HAFTR as we know it.”
Joel Shiff, President of Congregation Beth Sholom said, “He really oversaw the growth of our synagogue and the religious Jewish community that now exists in Nassau County. He was certainly one of the pioneers…He was one of the founding members of the HAFTR school. He’s done a lot for the community. He still is friendly with many people. I sit next to him on Sabbath morning…It’s interesting to see the amount of members who come by to shake his hand, and how many he still knows by their name.”
Where it all began
A first-generation American, Klaperman was born in Harlem in 1921 to Polish immigrant parents. “Harlem was a beautiful place in those days. I had wonderful parents; my father was a great scholar and my mother was a great woman,” Klaperman said. “My mother was very bright, but uneducated. When the George Washington Bridge was built, we were living in Washington Heights. The minute it was ready, my mom took me and we walked across it. She wanted to do things for me to learn. When the city subway system was built, you know, the A train and others, she took me on the train…she pointed out to me, I’ll never forget this, that every station had a different color brick. She made me very alert. I knew everything.”
Klaperman graduated high school in 1936 and became an ordained rabbi by 1941. “I was taking the subjects leading to it, it was fascinating,” he said. “I was already getting advanced Jewish studies. I never thought about being a rabbi; I was just studying the material. After I graduated, I just took the exam. I was ordained by 1941. My father said, ‘You studied. You’re a scholar. You should become a rabbi.’ So, I became a rabbi.”
It was around that same time that he met his first love, Libby. “We had a group of fellows and formed a religious Zionist group. On Friday nights we’d all get together. We’d dance and sing Hebrew songs. It was very inspiring. We made lifelong friends. The girls used to come, too. There was a young girl around my age. She was very sweet and very smart. I used to walk her home on Friday nights. I’d go up and sit with her and have a cup of tea. We became very close. It was love at first sight.” They were married shortly after.
From that point on, Klaperman lived and served in different positions in and out of the country. He was asked to be a chaplain for the Canadian military and the director at the Hillel center at Queens University in Canada. “I was close to the boys [at the university]…a truck pulled up in front of the synagogue with soldiers in it. They came out and it was my boys. They were going overseas and they wanted a blessing. I was maybe 23 years old. I was blessing the army. I did the best I could,” Klaperman recalled. The boys were part of the railroad battalion in the military and that morning was the last time he got to see them.
“…As it turned out, they were the first troops that went across with the French Army to Dieppe…this was also a German stronghold,” Klaperman recalled. “Almost all of them were killed. It was quite a tragic experience. It really made me sick. By the end of the year, I was ready to leave. I had other experiences with aviation, too. Flyers going back and forth, a couple of them crashed. I just couldn’t take anymore.”
He moved to another position in Iowa, but through the years, he also spent some time in South Carolina and West Newark, New Jersey. Klaperman and Libby had four children: Judy, Joel, Frieda, and Carol. Judy and Joel were born in New Jersey. “ I used to take Judy every morning on the ferry to New York, to a Hebrew preschool. She always had a great time,” he reminisced, laughing. “For me, it was a job, but nothing was too good for Judy.” Judy passed away from breast cancer in 2002. “She was a doll,” Klaperman added, his voice breaking. Libby also passed away in 1982 from a cardiac defect. “She always had a hole in the chamber of her heart. She was lovely and wonderful, always fighting the weakness…we were inseparable.”
The family got their start in The Five Towns in 1950, after Yeshiva University called Klaperman and alerted him to a vacancy in Lawrence, he said. “My synagogue was initially meeting in a private house on Washington Avenue. When we were in the process of building it, I was [standing] on the scaffolding checking everything as the work progressed…the congregation had about 70 members. With 70, we built the beautiful building.”
HAFTR (which was originally the Hillel School, founded in 1957) came to fruition when Hillel merged with Hebrew Institute of Long Island (HILI) in Far Rockaway, Queens. “The school in Far Rockaway imploded…disappeared. So they basically merged with us,” Klaperman said, whose daughter Carol was in the first graduating class. “Before that, we built the first building right near the shul, on Washington Avenue. I spent time buying properties and financing the new building and getting contractors. The area needed it. For the first year of the school, classes met in the synagogue.”
Beth Sholom was the first orthodox synagogue in Nassau County, Klaperman explained, and The Five Towns has changed a lot in the past six decades. “ [Back then], all the houses were not like they are today, they’re so big and massive now. They were little houses. You walked down the street…you may have seen someone you know. There were few Jews here. Now there are thousands. There must be a dozen kosher restaurants now.”
He added, “Along with Temple Beth El and Temple Israel…we were a powerful group, the three rabbis. They were great, wonderful people.”
Involvement with World Leaders
While being the head of the New York Conference on Soviet Jury in the late 1950’s, Klaperman met with Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. “We were in constant battle with the Soviets,” Klaperman said. “I was arguing the case of the Jews with Khrushchev. Finally, he said in Russian, ‘okay.’ He was a tough nut. I was really at daggers end with him.” Klaperman traveled through the Soviet Union. While in Romania, Klaperman met Elie Wiesel, a political activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. “We traveled together, addressed congregations and synagogues. He is a very nice and wonderful person.”
He also met with the Pope John Paul II about Jewish-Catholic relations. “We were negotiating with them to recognize Israel,” Klaperman recalled. He’s also met with a few presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. “Kennedy was a cute kid,” Klaperman recollected.
While speaking of various leaders and high-level officials, Klaperman often described them as “nice,” but his years of experience has awarded him a sense of astuteness. He added, “You can’t tell. [You] can only see what they want you to see.”
In 1985, Klaperman got remarried to New York City Councilwoman Susan Alter. They met through an acquaintance, while Atler was working on sponsoring a bill to have a supplemental police force. “She impressed me,” Klaperman said. “…I told her, ‘I think we need to discuss this further — why don’t we have lunch?’ She said, ‘sure.’ So, we had lunch. Then, I said, we’ll have to do some more discussion.” They’ve been married for over 25 years and Klaperman spoke of her fondly, referring to her as a “tower of strength,” and a “ a powerhouse.”
In addition to being a rabbi, Klaperman subsequently received a masters, doctorate, and law degree. He taught for many years at Yeshiva University, he was a law professor at Hofstra University School of Law, a professor the School of Religion at the State University of Iowa, and taught at Lehman College. He’s a published author. His books include “The How and Why of the Old Testament,” and “God, the Bible and Jewish Values.” He also wrote a four-volume history of the Jewish people with his first wife, Libby, titled “The Story of the Jewish People.” His list of accomplishments don’t end there, though. Klaperman was involved in several organizations, one of which was his role as the president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
At 91-years-old, to say that Klaperman has learned a few life lessons is an understatement. He attributes his success and knowledge to his parents and the rabbis from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary where he was ordained. “Rabbi Belkin was a genius… I learned from his gentility and sweetness. He calmed me down…I learned from Rabbi Soloveitchik, too. These two guys made my life,” Klaperman said dotingly.
As for being honored by HAFTR, Klaperman responded, “I worked hard all my life… It always feels good to be honored, but it doesn’t feel necessary.” However, the community begs to differ.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit,” Shiff said of Klaperman. “He showed true leadership…he’s done a lot for the community.”
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