22 November 2009

South Africa: Mendel Kaplan dead

The South African Jewish community suffered a major loss last week with the death of prominent leader Mendel Kaplan, 73, following a stroke in Cape Town, where the funeral was held on Sunday.

A major Jewish philanthropist, the billionaire industrialist was a citizen of both Israel and South Africa and lived in both.

Kaplan was also interested in Jewish genealogy, particularly the South African Jewish community's Lithuanian roots. He had authored several books.

His grants enabled the computerization of the Registers of the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter and the database, -at the University of Leicester (UK) School of Historical Studies - is an important source of demographic, genealogical and migration information.

He founded the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1980, and was involved in the founding of the South African Jewish Museum (via the Kaplan, Kushlick Foundation), opened in 2000 by Nelson Mandela. He funded the museum's multimedia equipment as well as the reconstruction of a Lithuanian shtetl.

He promoted Soviet aliya after the Soviet Union's collapse, was known for his commitment to Jewish education and the belief that unless education was at the heart of the Jewish community, the Jewish people would not continue, and he was involved in many social projects in both Israel and South Africa.

He was involved with many global Jewish organizations, serving as chair of the Jewish Agency's board (1987-1995), Keren Hayesod's World Board chair (1983-1987) and Keren Hayesod honorary president from 1995 until his death. Other major organizations also benefited from his leadership and he was Jerusalem Foundation chair (1995-1999), United Communal Fund of South Africa national chair (1974-1978), Israel United Appeal South Africa national chair (1978-1987) and South African Jewish Board of Deputies vice president.

In 1936, he was born in South Africa, graduated from Wynberg Boys' High and the University of Cape Town with a law degree (1958) and earned an MBA from Columbia University (1960). His honorary degrees included UCT, Yeshiva University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He is survived by his Jill Lazar Kaplan, two daughters, two sons and grandchildren.

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