Three weeks ago Harry Glazer penned a beautiful tribute in The Jewish Link to my mother, Iola Caplan, z”l whose first yahrzeit we recently marked. One of the traditions in the Caplan family on Thanksgiving is for each family member to write down on a post-it note one thing for which we are thankful. We would then affix our individual notes on a large mirror in the dining room and read them aloud. So, as Thanksgiving approached this year, I wanted to focus on someone who richly deserves my thanks — and the thanks of so many others — Rabbi Yaakov Luban.
Rabbi Luban recently stepped down from his pulpit at Cong. Ohr Torah in Edison, New Jersey. Rabbi Luban was not only the shul rabbi for over 40 years, he has been an accomplished teacher, a trusted confidante and a close friend to nearly every member of our community. The stories of his unparalleled chesed and sense of areivus can be written by each of us in our own distinctive way. But I would like to offer my own thoughts and experiences that I believe merely scratch the surface of the man and what he has accomplished in his distinguished career.
The Unexpected Guest
Back in 1986 when my wife and I moved into the Highland Park/Edison community, we were just becoming acclimated to our new surroundings when our second son was born. We made preparations for a modest shalom zachor and did not expect a large crowd. But the community embraced us and many showed up. We certainly did not expect the rabbi of one of the shuls of which we were not a member to make his presence. But much to our surprise, Rabbi Luban showed up. But it was more than just showing his presence. He came with a smile on his face and with an outpouring of well wishes that I could not quite understand. Since there were only two rabbis at the table, I asked Rabbi Luban to say a few words of Torah. With a resounding yes, Rabbi Luban gave a dvar Torah that I have never forgotten. I immediately realized that night that this rabbi possessed a remarkably generous and caring spirit. From that night on, our relationship grew.
The Great Communicator
While the 1980s featured the rise of President Ronald Reagan, who was dubbed “The Great Communicator,” there was another great communicator whose words of Torah were resonating strongly with his congregation and the community at large. Rabbi Luban’s sermons, Shabbat Hagadol and Shabbat Shuva drashot began to attract hundreds of devotees. Those drashot were replete with great chidushim and Torah insights. But they also touched our hearts. Rabbi Luban would often drive home the message that studying the Torah was not just an abstract or intellectual exercise. His messages also challenged and encouraged us to evolve and grow through Torah. I recall being moved to tears on more than one occasion. That is how deep his messages penetrated my heart.
Two special shabbat sermons come to mind for me. One Shabbos morning he spoke of how he would walk past a discount store in Manhattan each day on his way to work. He marveled at a worker standing outside the store who would be promoting the store all day by repeatedly exclaiming: “99 cents! 99 cents!” He discerned a lesson from this man’s dedication to his job. He implored us, as Torah observant Jews, to emulate this man’s passion and become more diligent in our passion toward tefillah, Torah study and religious observance. Rather than dismiss another human being who seemed to have a pedestrian nature, Rabbi Luban showed his respect and admiration for this man.
In another sermon he spoke about how important it is to be generous with one’s words in helping lift others. He told us about a colleague of his who never felt appreciated in the workplace. Experiencing his angst about this lack of appreciation, this man shared that frustration with his family. When he passed away, colleagues came to the shiva and told his family what a wonderful and dedicated colleague he was. To his family members those words rang hollow and in fact may have added insult to injury that he suffered due to that lack of positive feedback for so many years. The lesson for the congregation was: be more generous with your words of encouragement and be more attuned to others’ sensitivities and insecurities. I would only add that Rabbi Luban makes a practice of regularly providing genuine and heartfelt chizuk to others.
The Great Motivator
In early 2005, following the 11th Siyum Hashas, Rabbi Luban gave a drasha which I refer to as the “No Excuses” sermon. At the time, I did not think I was capable nor had the time to engage in daily Torah study. I had a one-hour Shabbos chavruta with my brother Josh and a close friend, Harvey Paretzky, z”l. But that was the extent of my learning. But I never imagined that completing a Daf Yomi cycle was even possible for me.
Rabbi Luban related that with the expansion of resources, Daf Yomi shiurim and study aids, there were increasingly fewer excuses for anyone, even those with a limited Talmud background, to believe it was impossible to become part of the Daf Yomi. After Shabbos I purchased the Schottenstein Talmud set and began attending a Daf Yomi group at Cong. Ohr Torah. The rest is history and I am now well into my third cycle. One thing of which I am quite certain: if not for Rabbi Luban’s encouragement and support, it is unlikely that I would have ever bothered trying.
There is an old saying that is attributed to Woody Allen which says: “90 % of life is showing up.” When it comes to showing up, there is no one who makes it his business to attend nearly every simcha, funeral, shiva, dinner or any other significant event. Rabbi Luban, along with his devoted wife Faigie, make it their priority to make their presence felt, even when they are told it is unnecessary. Rabbi Luban and Faigie have been known to attend as many as five or six events in a single day, logging hundreds of miles through multiple states. The Rabbi and Rebbetzin consider it not only an obligation, but indeed a privilege, to participate in milestone events in other people’s lives and to honor all with their presence.
I was once driving with the rabbi on one Sunday afternoon and I asked him why he sacrifices so much of his free time to attend so many events. He related to me a story from his earlier years that shows the development of his tremendous sensitivity to others.
Rabbi Luban related an experience he had as a yeshiva bochur in Lakewood, New Jersey. A married friend of his had a baby boy. The baby’s bris had to be delayed once or twice and was finally scheduled on a rainy day. Rabbi Luban was not feeling his best and decided not to attend. The following day his friend called him to inquire why he did not attend. His friend told him how much he was missed and that he had hoped to give Rabbi Luban a significant kibbud (honor) at the bris. Rabbi Luban felt terrible and was resolute from then on that he would try to never let that situation recur.
On another occasion I asked Rabbi Luban, who was his role model in terms of his commitment to serving the community. He immediately responded that he was fortunate to have his father, Rabbi Marvin Luban, z”l as a stellar role model to him of commitment to serving the needs of each and every member of his congregation.
Despite his great following, accolades and honors, Rabbi Luban is perhaps one of the most humble men I have ever known. I have gotten a good sense of his tremendous humility when I attended his Shabbos Gemara shiur. He talks candidly about his career experiences as a rabbinical student, a pulpit rabbi, a community leader, and a respected colleague of many distinguished rabbanim at the OU kashrus division. He was not afraid to relate some of his mistakes and misgivings over the years if there was a lesson for all of us to learn.
Rabbi Luban is also careful with his words and makes sure not to exaggerate his stature and experience. He has quoted his rebbe at the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, on many occasions. I recall one instance when he quoted his rebbe and then paused. He felt it necessary to clarify that when he referred to Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz as his “rebbe,” he may have given us the impression that he had an elevated status in Rav Chaim’s eyes. He emphasized that he was just another talmid of Rav Chaim and then proceeded to teach us one of the chidushim he learned from his rebbe.
A Grateful Community
As you may have surmised, Rabbi Luban has left an indelible mark on me and the Highland Park/Edison community. But the story I have written could have been written by many other members of the congregation and the Edison/Highland Park community. There are many others who have benefitted in so many ways from their relationships with Rabbi Luban.
But I can safely say that I speak on behalf of the entire community in wishing the Rabbi and Rebbetzin arichut yamim, nachas, and good health as they transition to the next chapter of their lives. We are so grateful to both of them and wish them a happy and rewarding retirement.
Jonathan D. Caplan, a former Wall Street executive, is president and founder of wealth management firm Caplan Capital Management, Inc., with offices in Highland Park and Hackensack. He holds a B.A. from Yeshiva University and an MBA in finance from New York University Stern School of Business. You can find other recent investment articles by Jonathan at www.caplancapital.com/blog.