Community Rebbetzen Freda Kaplan was born in Edgware, but moved to Israel with her family when she was sixteen. Whilst living there she completed her studies, did her army service, and also met and married her husband, Dov. Throughout their 33 year marriage they have lived and worked in various communities around the world including Israel, Colombia, and the UK, and for the past 6 ½ years, they have been based at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue (HGSS) providing spiritual leadership and guidance to the community.
She believes that being a community Rebbetzen is a very interesting and enjoyable role, which offers lots of opportunities. “For me, I feel that it is a privilege to be able to interact with so many people, to surprise, but to always be surprised.” As part of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue community she has been very involved in many aspects of the life and year cycle of the synagogue from pastoral care to running a very popular bat mitzvah programme for mothers and daughters. She enjoys working alongside her husband, and feels that they work well together to enhance the community. “Coming to Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue has been a great opportunity for both of us. We have been able work together as a team and I feel that complement each other well in our approach and outlook.”
Having previously trained as a social worker, Rebbetzen Kaplan feels that these skills are very helpful when it comes to being involved in a community, and it can help people share their own problems and issues without fear of judgement. “I like people to feel that I am accessible, so that they are comfortable talking to me. I am open with some of the personal issues that I have been through, such as infertility and adoption, and hope that others in similar situations realise that there is some common ground, and come to me for help and advice.”
During her time living in Israel, Rebbetzen Kaplan was involved in helping people by working as a ‘medical clown’. Whilst living in Caesarea, she heard about a new programme being run, and was keen to be involved. “For anyone who knows me, they know I like to have fun and don’t mind being the centre of attention. Originally the course had been run just for doctors and medical staff, so when I heard that they were offering a course for ‘lay people’ I was very interested.” As a medical clown, she was based at Laniado Hospital in Netanya, and worked with both adults and children helping them through stressful and worrying times whilst staying in hospital. Together with another medical clown, they would accompany the medical team and try to cheer up patients who may be going through operations or procedures, acting as a distraction to their pain and discomfort. “As a clown, we work one-to-one with patients and can interact with them on a personal basis, and just try to make their time in hospital a slightly more fun one. It is a great way to help people who are not well, and to make them feel more relaxed and happy.”
More recently, she has been involved in helping people in a different way, turning a personal tragedy into something positive for others. When her son got married in Israel two years ago, Rebbetzen Kaplan’s father was very sick at the time. Thanks to the services of a specially adapted ambulance he was still able to be present at the simcha. Unfortunately, he passed away just three days later, but she was so grateful to have had a chance to share such a special occasion with him, that she promised to set up a similar service in the UK. “I felt passionate about being able to help others to fulfil their final wishes.” Although a similar scheme had been run in Holland, nothing like that existed in the UK. When a member of the HGSS community, Judith Tobin, a palliative care doctor, made Rebbetzen Kaplan aware of a paramedic called Alice Berrill who was already in the process of establishing a charity called The Ambulance Wish Foundation UK, she got in contact with Alice to find out how she could help raise funds.
She pledged to raise enough money to not only fund an ambulance, but to also cover the costs for running it for a year. Raising that much money in a short amount of time, needed an unusual approach to attract donations, so she had to come up with something very special. “I wanted to do something that really had the ‘wow’ factor, and jumping out of a plane sounded like a good way to do it!” Being an Orthodox woman, she had to first find a female instructor to do her tandem skydive with, and finally found someone in Beccles, Suffolk. From her fundraising efforts, Rebbetzen Kaplan managed to raise over £100,000. In November, the purpose-built ambulance was presented in a ceremony that was attended by members of the community as well as Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. The ambulance is now up and running, and Alice is responsible for helping individuals make their wishes come true. “I am really happy to have been involved in getting this started, and hope that it is able to continue to help people make their final wishes happen.
She wanted the purpose built ambulance to be a gift from the Jewish community to be used by whoever needs it, and also as a tribute to her parents’ memory. Inscriptions stating both of these things are clearly displayed on the ambulance. Rebbetzen Kaplan believes that as Jews it is important to support good deeds and charity within the Jewish community, but sometimes to reach beyond this. “I care passionately for the Jewish community and always happy to help in any way that I can, but sometimes it seems right to look at ways of influencing and connecting with the wider community.” For her, this applies not only to The Ambulance Wish Foundation UK, but also through helping other charities and worthwhile causes. Along with her husband, she has been involved in initiatives to raise money and awareness for Centrepoint homeless charity by sleeping out on the streets of London, and has also visited a refugee camp in Calais.
She is currently involved in helping to plan and organise an event taking place in January, which is supported by the Chief Rabbi’s Office. The Neshama Festival will give women the opportunity to experience Torah through both traditional approaches, as well as more interactive and creative ways such as through music, comedy, and art. There will also be shiurim from female guest speakers from within the Jewish community sharing their own thoughts and experiences on a variety of topics.
Rabbi and Rebbetzen Kaplan along with their youngest son, will be leaving the HGSS community next year to move back to Israel where their other 5 children, and 7 grandchildren live. She is keen to spend some time being a grandmother, but also wants to take on some other challenges. Although they will not be working in a particular community they have a lot of different ideas of things they would like to do. “We are always looking for our next challenge. That is what keeps it interesting. We have a real mosaic of things we would like to do, and we are very excited to have a chance to use our knowledge and experience to help on a bigger scale.”