Rebetzen, Wizard and True Friend: Gittel Kaplan

It almost marks the end of the Shiva. And I still can’t find the words because there are none. But I will try.

I wake up thinking about Gittel. I go to sleep thinking about her. I feel like she is in my pocket; wherever I go, she goes with me.

Last Tuesday, I (but really we) lost a big soul, someone who was a pillar in this world holding the earth up. She was a co-worker, friend, mentor and family by marriage. I called her the SalesForce Wizard because she knew SalesForce inside out. She was the only person in the entire organization that reached every single corner of United Hatzalah. Every department, every chapter, every medic, staff member, volunteer- everyone. SalesForce is the nucleus of the organization, the glue that keeps the logistics and facts together, and she was its wizard. There isn’t a person who wasn’t affected by her death in this organization.

Yet, for the 2+ hours that people spoke at her funeral, not once was SalesForce mentioned.

I thought I knew Gittel. I knew she had 11 kids, about who was home for Shabbos and who wasn’t, her love for iced coffee from Angels, what frustrated her at work, her religious stance, how quickly she typed, how she loved to solve riddles and problems and a good challenge, how she came from big Yechus, that her husband had a Yeshiva and was the Rabbi of the community of Givat Hamivtar and so much more. But I didn’t know her. I didn’t know she went to the Kotel every single Friday, including the one before she passed away, without fail. I didn’t know she was instrumental in the building of the women’s Mikvah in her neighborhood. I certainly didn’t know how well known and loved her husband was. I had no idea that she told her husband to sit and learn until an hour before Shabbos and she did EVERYTHING. I had no clue she did all the shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, clean up without any help, and not because her husband didn’t want to or wasn’t there for her, but because she begged him to stay at yeshiva to learn and teach more Torah! I didn’t have an inkling that she wasn’t only my mentor- but she was everyone’s! How could I have possibly known she was so sick when she never complained and always showed up to work with beautiful clothes, a stunning wig, makeup, and a contagious smile?

There were dozens of articles written about her that are on the net (Google: Gittel Kaplan A”H) so I won’t start quoting them- you can read them yourself- and you should. But the general theme that came across all of them was: “Oy! What a true tzadakis!” When someone dies, no matter what kind of person they were when they were living, suddenly they become a saint. That isn’t Gittel. Anyone that had the privilege to know her knew she was something beyond nature, beyond human in a way. The Parsha of her passing was Chaya Sara; the first time in the Torah we relive a scene of a true tzadakis dying and being mourned. Not only that, the first medrish on the Parsha says that Sara died on her birthday. Gittel died mere hours before her 50th birthday and she probably would have held on for a few more hours and died on her Hebrew birthday if not for the following reason.

Gittel’s brother, in England, is making a wedding for his son on Wednesday. If she had died a few hours later than she did, her brother would have still been in Shiva for the wedding which would have caused so many issues and troubles for the family. Because she died before sunset, he is able to get up from Shiva hours before making his son’s wedding. I know she did that with subconscious intention. A truly righteous woman! She respected her husband tremendously, was incredibly devoted, loving and attentive to all 11 children, she was committed to her work and made sure everyone had what they needed before she left for the day, and she was there for anyone that needed an ear, hug or smile. How did she do it all? I have no idea. It makes no sense to my human brain. Yet, the beauty of Gittel was not only that she was so righteous, but she was also so normal.

I used to love reading books about righteous people. I won’t say names but once I was reading a book about a big famous Rebbetzin and she lived in a boiling hot city. She cooked all Friday for shabbos and had no air conditioning. One day, recounted someone in the book, her kids got together and surprised her and installed a new air conditioning in the kitchen. When she saw it she asked that it be removed saying she could handle it before- so what changed? A tzadakis? Yes, she was. But that didn’t get my awe and respect. I couldn’t understand that at all. In contrast, in another book about another famous Rebbetzin, I read how she often asked for help, she talked about how she struggled with weight, she could even be caught doing “normal mundane activities”! She was someone I felt connected to, although I never knew her. She seemed so normal to me- someone I can aspire to be like.

That was Gittel. Gittel was a very great person and was far beyond most people in this world in terms of what we are capable of handling. Yet, she was so down to earth, so normal, so human. She would tell me things that bothered her, we could talk about “shtuyote” (roughly translated as meaningless talk), we often spoke about food and she knew how to have a good time and laugh! She was a Rebbetzen, but also someone that anyone could relate to. She wasn’t sitting on a pedestal with her head up high- even though she could have for the greatness she possessed.

United Hatzalah is filed with MANY kinds of different people and she respected everyone for who they were. Even if she was “frummer” than many of us, no one ever felt they couldn’t share with her whatever they needed to share. She honestly didn’t judge anyone- although she sometimes shared her opinions- and I loved that about her! She was the perfect example of “Live and Let Live”. She did her thing and let everyone do theirs with the utmost respect.

Gittel was the first person I “knew” when I joined United Hatzalah 4 years ago. I actually didn’t know her but knew of her because we shared a cousin and that cousin’s daughter at the time was very sick, so when we talked it was mostly about this cousin. But then the conversations started changing. I was divorced with 2 kids and I spoke to her a lot about my dating experiences and she was instrumental in me uncovering my hair (5 years after divorce) – which led to me marrying my now husband. We talked about so much- as I am writing, hundreds of conversations are flooding my memory. She was my “go-to person” at work. That person that I just stopped by to say hello, get a hug, or talk. But now that I think about it, I didn’t listen too much. She spoke, but it was never about the real stuff. In retrospect I realize she never spoke about being ill, she never ever complained, she never talked about her pain, her treatments or her fears. I knew she had been sick for a few years but I thought she was in remission. Only a few months ago did she very nonchalantly say to me “Sarah, I’m sick again”. I asked her why in the past she was so quiet and private about it and this time she was telling people and she told me it was because this time she needed the “Tzibur’s tefilla” (the prayers of the Jewish nation). So naturally, I was worried and asked her how she was doing and prayed- but she still came to work and no one would know anything from the outside. One day I called her to ask about something and she said, “Sarah- do you know that I am in the hospital?” I had no idea.

I visited her the following week for 3+ hours and just sat with her. We laughed a lot and at the end of the visit I said goodbye and went to the nursing station, pulled out an empty card I had in my purse, and wrote her a card saying “Gittel- how is it possible you are the one being visited yet I am the one walking away feeling so comforted and loved? I was feeling so down and you just made me so happy! You will be back soon at work, so enjoy your “time off” “- which was a bit of a joke we had. The week after that I didn’t make it back to the hospital. And the week after that, last Saturday night, we got a message saying her situation was critical. I went the next day and she was surrounded by her family. I stood outside her hospital room, dare not going in due to my uncontrollable tears until her daughter asked me to step inside. I looked at Gittel and all I saw was purity, light, and such beauty. Inner and outer beauty. She looked at me and said, “Sarah- what are you doing here?”. She knew me so well. She knew I don’t handle painful situations well. She smiled at me and I knew she said it lovingly and I said, “Gittel, I am leaving now but you are too soon” and she nodded her head yes.

She passed the following Tuesday.

Finding out we lost her was one of the most painful things I have ever been through. I felt like my heart stopped and I couldn’t breathe. I don’t remember crying that hard in a very very long time. The funeral was unbearably painful and now we have to walk into work every day seeing the sign on the front door announcing her death. Everyone at work is banging into walls, like zombies, not knowing how to go on without her.

The eulogies were all in Hebrew (and Yiddish) so it was hard to follow but for 2+ hours I shivered in the cold and cried my lungs out and stood with many hundreds of people mourning the loss of this great person. Her son said how he didn’t even know she was sick until about a year ago. She went through her treatments quietly, never complaining, never asking for more help, never using it as an excuse for anything and certainly not burdening her husband or children. Her son explained how his mother was the definition of an Aishes Chayel- “Mi Yimtza?” How she was the woman who worked full time, raised 11 beautiful children, ran the house impeccably and touched the lives of everyone around her so deeply. They spoke about how her own neighbors didn’t know what was going on and suddenly there was a sign up in their building elevator with her requesting from each neighbor to please tell the family if she had ever borrowed anything so her family could give it back on her behalf!

When sitting at the Shiva, I was able to tell her daughters what a light she was and one daughter looked at me and said, “I am so honored and privileged to have been her daughter”! To have her own daughter say that at the Shiva says everything but I think every single one of us felt that. What an honor and privilege it was to know Gittel! To work with her daily. To befriend her. To laugh with her. I found the picture of us hugging/dancing at my wedding a few months ago- I will cherish that picture forever!

I can’t reach her ankles in terms of greatness but I can say that I have been more careful, aware and alert about my actions and words and that is in her merit.

We don’t understand this world and losing Gittel was a true test to my faith but I think it is so incredible that the Shabbos after her death was Shabbos Chaya Sara where it talks about Avraham acquiring Ma’aras Hamachpala and its brought down in many Torah sources that Tichiyas Hamasim (resurrection of the dead) will stem from Maaras Hamachpala- that Chevron is the HQ of Techiyas Hamasim! So with that thought and belief, I need to hold on to the fact that she will be with us one day again and I pray to G-d that that day comes soon.

In the meantime, I, along with anyone else that knew her will miss her deeply.

Please give what you can to her family fund: https://www.rayze.it/Zichrongittel/

About the Author
Sarah Bechor is a freelance writer in addition to her full-time job at United Hatzalah. She made Aliyah in 2007 and now lives with her husband and children in Gush Etzion.
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