Toronto Ward 5 public school trustee Howard Kaplan, who has died at age 72, was remembered as a committed secular Jew who believed strongly in social justice and was an advocate for students.
Kaplan died April 11 of an auto-immune disorder that battered his liver – “too complicated to explain here,” he wrote on his Facebook page last autumn.
He was first elected in Ward 5 (York Centre) in 2010 and re-elected by a larger margin in the 2014 elections.
He was “a passionate advocate for public education who truly believed in what he was doing,” eulogized Toronto District School Board chair Robin Pilkey at Kaplan’s funeral. He was “principled, dedicated, interesting and interested,” she said.
Fellow trustee Shelley Laskin said Kaplan “advocated for students and families within his community and championed issues of equity and social justice.”
Kaplan’s ward contained 19 elementary and four secondary schools. Among them was the controversial Africentric Alternative School that shares a building with Sheppard Public School near Keele Street and Sheppard Avenue.
When he was elected, he was “a bit skeptical about the Africentric school,” Kaplan recalled a few years ago. “I have never seen in any other school within my ward such an engaged parent council. When they come to school council meetings, it’s so huge they have to meet in the gym.”
Kaplan added that he found no evidence of exclusion at the school, opened in 2008, in response to critics who argued that it would be segregationist.
Last year, he was one of just two trustees to vote against terminating a controversial partnership between the TDSB and the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institute.
Firmly and proudly on the political left, and an ardent Yiddishist, Kaplan had leadership roles in the United Jewish People’s Order, the Winchevsky Centre and the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
He was born in Toronto, earned a teacher’s certificate and became an early computer programmer for Ontario Hydro, spurning a management position. “He wanted to be with the workers,” said his son, Ari.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he became active in the Waffle, the radical wing of the New Democratic Party, bringing his children to protests.
Feeling the pull of Zionism in 1978, he moved his wife and two children to Israel for a year, to the country’s sole communist kibbutz, Yad Hanna.
Whether picking fruit or guarding the entrance with a rifle, “he fell in love with kibbutz life,” his son told The CJN.
He then spent all of the 1980s living in Denmark, where he continued his activism in left-wing causes and learned fluent Danish. He returned to Toronto in 1991.
Kaplan often adjudicated in student suspension and expulsion hearings, said fellow trustee Gerri Gershon.
“Whenever families came into the room, they were feeling uptight. Howard always tried to make them feel at ease by trying to say a few words in their language,” Gershon told The CJN. “He was always respectful of contrary opinions. I never heard him speak ill of anyone – a rare occurrence in politics.”
Later in life, “he had this brilliant idea that he was going to actualize his political [side],” his son said with a chuckle. “He loved being a trustee. He described it as his favourite job. For him, his renaissance really started in his late 60s.
“He really epitomized what it meant to be a secular Jewish humanist where ritual is secondary to culture and identity.”
Kaplan is survived by his partner Joanne Chisholm, daughter Elyse Tera, son Ari, two sisters and three grandsons.