Mendel Kaplan dies

By Jessica Elgot, November 20, 2009
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Mendel Kaplan

Mendel Kaplan

The South African industrialist Mendel Kaplan, former chairman of the Jewish Agency's board of governors, has died aged 73.

Mr Kaplan, who made his fortune in steel works, suffered a stroke at his home in Cape Town.

He was known for his devotion to Jewish and Zionist causes, as honorary president of Keren Hayesod and a former chairman of World Jewish Congress’ executive committee.

He also founded the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1980, and the South African Jewish Museum, which was opened by Nelson Mandela in 2000.

The museum, funded by the Kaplan Kushlick Foundation, incorporated the entrance to the 1856 Gardens synagogue.

Mr Kaplan invested in groundbreaking multimedia equipment for the museum, including the complete reconstruction of a Lithuanian shtetl.

He opposed discrimination in apartheid South Africa, declaring at the opening of the museum: “The relatively high proportion of Jews involved in both developing South Africa and fighting discrimination can be explained by the fact that we, too, were victims, and therefore suffered with, and assisted, others in the same position.”

Mendel Kaplan was one of the great contemporary Zionists

Ronald Lauder

His foundation also provided over 2500 bursaries for higher education for his employee's children, and for Ethiopian and Druze students in Israel. Mr Kaplan was also a great supporter of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and was chairman of the Board at the gardens

He and his wife Jill divided their time between Cape Town, and their homes in Jerusalem, Caesaria and Twickenham – the latter location chosen because of his love of rugby.

Mr Kaplan had Israeli citizenship, and during his last official visit to Israel he received his Israeli identity card at the Western Wall.

WJC President Ronald Lauder described Mr Kaplan as “one of the great leaders of world Jewry over the past decades.”

He added: “As a gifted chairman of important bodies within the World Jewish Congress, as well as in the Jewish Agency of Israel and other Jewish organizations, he made a tremendous contribution to the well-being of Jews everywhere the world, in particular those in the former Soviet Union whose emigration he helped to make possible in the 1980s.

"Mendel Kaplan was one of the great contemporary Zionists, and over the past five decades he contributed immensely to turning the State of Israel as a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. He had a truly global vision for the Jewish people and supported many education projects.

“In his native South Africa, Mendel was second to none when it came to advocating the interests of the local community, and to defending Israel. He was a great moderator and helped to bring people together, to overcome divergences of opinion and to heal divisions. He will be sorely missed."

Avi Pazner, world chairman of Keren Hayesod paid tribute to Mr Kaplan. He said: "He was a giant in the Jewish world. He had very deeply rooted Jewish and Zionist feelings and he knew how to get what he wanted - and what he wanted was always for the good of the cause."

Barbara Steinberg, of Friends of Jerusalem Botanical Gardens said: "Mendel was Chairman of the Board at the Gardens for many years, contributing tirelessly to helping their development as well as being a generous benefactor. His death leaves a huge gap and he will be greatly missed."

    Last updated: 2:36pm, November 23 2009