My Hero, the Rabbanit Bracha Kapach

November 27, 2013

One of the world’s Great Souls went to her eternal reward this week.  Her death will receive some coverage in the Israeli media and the religious press, but from my perspective, when a Giant is gone, the world should stop for a moment. Perhaps if she were a CEO, or a general, or a politician, her death would receive more recognition, but make no mistake: The Rabbanit Kapach was a giant of the human spirit.

Her name was Bracha Kapach, but everyone called her The Rabbanit.  (“Rabbanit” is the Hebrew form of the Yiddish “Rebbetzin,” a rabbi’s wife.)  Her husband, Rav Yosef Kapach, was the one of the foremost scholars of Maimonides in the 20th Century and the gadol ha-dor (the great leader of his generation) for the Jews of Yemen.[1]  Every aspect of her early life is remarkable:  married at 11 in order to rescue young Yosef from conscription into the Yemenite army; a mother at 14; arriving in the State of Israel with other Yemenite Jews in what was dubbed “Operation Magic Carpet” in the 1949-50.[2]

Both the Rav Kapach and the Rabbanit were recipients of the Israel Prize, the highest award that the State of Israel bestows upon citizens who make extraordinary contributions to the nation.  They were the only husband-and-wife who both received the award – in completely separate realms for distinct and different contributions to the Jewish people. 

What made her great?  She was the living embodiment of the principles of Tzedakah and Chesed. But that sounds feeble: We often eulogize people with words like those. I mean that sentence absolutely literally:  More than any human being I’ve ever met, her essence was in giving to people in need and caring for people who were hurting.  I’ll explain.

Like most of the Great People whom I’ve met in my life, I was introduced to her by Danny Siegel.  She lived in the heart of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood called “Shaarei Chesed” (“the Gates of Lovingkindness”). Years ago (I met her in 1992) you could get in a taxi and say, “12 Lod Street” and the driver would say, “Are you going to see the Rabbanit?”  And he might then launch into a story of how she had saved or restored the dignity of his cousin, or his brother-in-law, or himself.

For many, she was known as the Wedding Dress Lady – and that’s the context in which I first met her.  Jews from around the world would bring her donated wedding dresses, which she would give to poor brides.  That would be the tip of the iceberg:  she would create entire weddings for brides and grooms who had nothing at all; she would provide the dress, the food, the musicians, and sometimes even the guests.  I was privileged to be a guest a half-dozen times over the years at her weddings for needy brides; there is a special uplift in the soul to be part of this particular Mitzvah.

Then there was the Passover food project.  She and her small cadre of loyal volunteers – mostly elderly Yemenite women from the community, and a bunch of hangers-on like myself – would distribute thousands of Passover food packages to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had a holiday.  In these packages were matzah, wine, sugar, eggs, honey, fruit, and a half-dozen other materials to ensure that the Festival of Freedom could be celebrated with dignity and joy.  When the distribution took place, there would be a patient line of people snaking up Shefaram Street.

In 1993 I had an astounding privilege:  not only to volunteer with the food distribution, but to spend the afternoon with the Rabbanit making food deliveries to homebound people all around Jerusalem.  Throughout that day – it was, in reflection, one of the most important days of my life – I watched her in action.  She knew everyone by name.  She uttered blessings for every person to whom we delivered food.  Before we would enter an alley in Nachla’ot, she would take me by the arm and, with tears in her eyes, tell me, “This is a very sad story…”  My G-d, it seemed like she personally knew every sad, broken, hurting person in Jerusalem.

There were too many poor children in Jerusalem just hanging out on the streets of Jerusalem in the summer when school was out.  So she started a summer camp for them, hundreds of them, that did (and still does) everything that summer camps should do:  sports, activities, hiking adventures, trips to the beach and to water parks.  (My son Jeremy still sleeps in an oversized t-shirt that says, in Hebrew, “The Nachla’ot Summer Camp of the Rabbanit Kapach.”)

Where did the money come from?  “Hashem Ya’azor,” she’d say, “G-d will help.”  And somehow, the money always arrived and the books always balanced – even as the Passover food project grew to thousands and thousands of people (Jerusalem is, disgracefully, the poorest city in Israel). 

You’d sit in her living room, for a moment of juice and cookies and just wanting to be with her to hear her stories.  But you wouldn’t get too far:  The phone would ring every other minute, and in alternating minutes there would be a knock on the door.  People with nowhere else to go knew they could come to her for support to get through the week.  Or visitors were coming to bring her money to distribute, just to be part of the amazing and pure network of Mitzvahs that she created.  No cynicism, no bureaucracy – and no naivete, either:  She knew there were people who might try to take advantage of her, and she wouldn’t have it.  I did, at times, see her turn people away (and I know it pained her).

I also saw, on occasion, a sly sense of humor.  She had a magic in her eye that sad she was no one’s fool, but that it was useful for her to be perceived as genteel and naïve.  I know she knew more English than she let on, but she liked to force people  to speak Hebrew in her presence.  One time I was saying goodbye to her (because it seems like whenever I’m in Israel, I’m always leaving), and she gave me a grin and a told me to follow her into an adjacent room.  She had something she wanted to give me, a volume of the Rav’s commentary on Maimonides.  She pulled some sheets and fabrics aside, looking for the book… and accidentally uncovered the small, confidential television that was hidden underneath.  (Now, the Rabbanit is an extremely religious woman; women like her do not sit in front the TV.)  “What’s that?!”  I said to her.  She grinned a wicked grin and said, “Well, sometimes I watch the news.”  She was acknowledging it was countercultural and slightly subversive – and she trusted me enough to let me see and share the smile.

When someone does a Mitzvah, it is customary to wish him or her “Yasher Koach” (“more strength to you”) or “Tizkeh l’mitzvot” (“may you merit the chance to do many more Mitzvahs”).  She had a retort if you wished her those things.  “Lo!” (“No!”) she’d say, “Nizkeh l’mitzvot.”  That is to say:  “May we merit the chance to do more Mitzvahs – together.” 

I tell my students she was one of the main teachers in my life.  But sometimes they don’t get it; they say, “Oh, what class did she teach?”  No – I mean the essence of teaching; a life’s teacher.  The sort of person who when you leave her presence, you say, “I wish I didn’t have to leave; I have so much more to learn just be being near her and watching her conduct her life.” I’d leave her thinking, this is what I’m supposed to be doing; what we’re all supposed to be doing: Mitzvahs. We’re supposed to be occupying our time feeding hungry people, taking care of children who are alone, bringing joy to needy brides, comforting those who are hurting, etc., etc.  Why do we have to spend so much time in life with tangential, unimportant things?  Mitzvahs:  These are what living is all about. 

Of course, I’d leave her, and after a while those feelings would dissipate.  And I’d want to write to her, or visit her on my next trip to Israel, just to get that inspiration again.  Now where are we supposed to go for that?

Since it’s Erev Chanukah, it’s tempting to link her life to the message of the Season of Light.  But it’s also the week when we read the section of the Torah about Joseph in Egypt; namely, how in a time of famine, Joseph fed everyone who was in need.  Joseph the Tzaddik, our tradition calls him.  My teacher the Rabbanit was a Tzadeket, one of the Righteous Ones:  everyone who was in need in Jerusalem knew her, sought her out, and was fed by her, body and spirit.

She was a Bracha—a true blessing—and the world is dimmer without her.

Zichronah Livracha.  Her memory is a Bracha.  A blessing.


[1] You can read more about Rabbi Kapach in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Sometimes scholarly articles call his last name “Kafih,” or other variant pronunciations, but in my presence they always pronounced their own name “Kapach.”

[2]Her biography is told in a beautiful Hebrew volume “V’zot HaBracha,” and by Danny Siegel in Munbaz II and Other Mitzvah Heroes (1988).