I first met Rabbi Paul Caplan at the 2016 Homewood Memorial Day Ceremony. He brought with him a shofer, a horn used in Jewish tradition as a call to battle or during Rosh Hoshana to proclaim the new year.
It’s an instrument that demands attention.
“You can’t turn away from it,” he said. “It’s like a Jewish alarm clock. You’re going to hear it.”
The horn and the attention it demands seem to be a fitting symbol for Caplan’s career as he retires from his position as senior rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields.
He was a horn player before he was a rabbi.
“I played trumpet in a rock band in Buffalo,” he said of his pre-rabbinical days.
In fact, when he told his family he wanted to study to become a rabbi, the first response he got was, “You can’t. You’re in a rock band.”
But he proved he was serious. He had studied psychology and had been in the profession for about a year. He loved people. He loved music. He felt the life of a religious leader would bring those interests together in a meaningful way. It was a calling, not the stereotypical directive from God, but a calling nevertheless.
“A calling is recognizing the special talents you possess. You’re called to develop those and give them to the world,” he said.
Caplan spent 38 years leading congregations, serving in Miami Beach, Baton Rouge and Baltimore before arriving in Olympia Fields 18 years ago.
That number is significant to him, although he said he didn’t plan his retirement around it. In the Hebrew alphabet, 18 is 10 (yod) plus 8 (heith) and together, they mean “life” and its infinite possibilities.
The idea of new possibilities was something that fueled Caplan’s career.
Like many professions, his formal education was long on academic studies and short on practical information, so he learned what it really means to be a spiritual leader by on-the-job training.
One key lesson came early on, when the senior rabbi he was working with directed him to greet kindergarten students and their families as they arrived. He wondered whether that was an appropriate role for a member of the clergy.
He learned that those youngsters were as important as the adults in the congregation. They are the future of the faith.
“I learned that everyone and everything is important,” he said. “You’re a leader of the people but you’re not separate.”
Being a leader “among” rather than “above” the congregation required a good deal of nimbleness, but that fit his personality.
“I don’t like routine,” he said. “I like organized chaos. I like to see what’s thrown at you every day.”
He brought that open approach to Temple Anshe Sholom, introducing new elements, especially a more upbeat style of music, to the temple’s ceremonies. He introduced a rock version of the shabbat service in about 2005, he said. The music was rock, but the lyrics told stories from the Torah.
“I just wanted to do it a different way,” he said. “Each generation has its calling. You try different things. There’s a time and place for everything.”
He said for the generations of the last half of the 20th century, remembering the Holocaust was the calling. He honors their contribution and believes that story of sacrifice must be preserved, but he felt his generation needed to provide a new direction.
“Why not bring back joy and spirituality, a feeling of community?” he said. Music was a big part of creating that new spirit.
That new approach still respected tradition. In fact, Caplan’s passion as a teacher was for conveying the core tenets of the Jewish faith and helping young people fully appreciate it.
“I’m readying them to be future leaders. It’s a way of looking at life, at the world,” he said. “You take a broken and shattered world and make it better.”
While we were talking at a local coffee shop, one of his former bat mitzvah students, Allyson Finkelstein, happened by.
“He is the best rabbi ever,” she said. “He taught me so much.”
Another member of the congregation also expressed appreciation for his contributions at the temple.
“I have worked with Rabbi Caplan both as staff and volunteer over his 18 years at Anshe Sholom,” Debby Pebworth said. “One of his important strengths is personal attention to life cycle events of our members, especially funerals. He always finds such comforting words to say.”
The congregation hosted a farewell party April 21 for Caplan and his family in conjunction with the temples 75th annniversary celebration. He and his wife, Linda, have two daughters, Shira and Eden.