Leslie Caplan

Leslie Caplan in 2007. Photo: Kristi Foster

Ellen Futterman

It’s only fitting that we sing the praises of our Unsung Hero, Leslie Caplan. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of hearing Caplan in action knows firsthand the depth and clarity of her sumptuous soprano. Her talent is rare, but what is even rarer is her willingness to use her voice not only to lift people’s spirits but to raise money for them as well.

“I’ve been singing my whole life,” says Caplan. “I can’t imagine doing anything else that gives me as much pleasure.”

Caplan is employed at Central Reform Congregation as a member of the cantorial staff and she spends much of her “free” time volunteering there as well as at several other places around the St. Louis area. Some of her volunteer projects include conducting Kabbalat Shabbat services at the JCA at the Cedars most every week, often supplying the oneg after services at CRC, helping students at the St. Louis juvenile detention facility write their resumes and spearheading fundraisers for victims of disasters in places such as Haiti and New Orleans. Giving new meaning to balabusta, she performs at these fundraisers, too.

“I did a benefit for Katrina at CRC and we raised half the money they raised that same night at Powell Hall and we had far less people,” she says proudly. “When Haiti hit, I didn’t just want to send in $10. So I cooked up the idea to put a benefit concert together. Everyone I asked to participate said yes and Jen Bersdale (CRC director of communications) and I put it together in eight days. We raised $7,300.”

But that wasn’t enough. Caplan had counted on raising $10,000. Undeterred, she decided to sing personalized Valentine’s Day songs for a price and donate the money to the Haiti effort. “I got up the morning of Valentine’s Day and sang 14 hours without a break starting at 8 a.m.,” she says. “I went to the bathroom singing. I ate singing. I called people all over the country. But it did raise the money.”

In addition to singing, Caplan loves to cook. She and her daughter Claire Sawyer Caplan, 20, once delivered Thanksgiving meals to firefighters in both Olivette and Berkeley to say thank you for their hard work. Then there was the time that Caplan gave her minivan to a man who had been left with his five young grandchildren after his daughter was murdered. The gesture prompted Claire Caplan to write “The Patron Saint of Olivette” as a tribute to her mother.

In this thoughtful piece, Claire tells how put out she felt having to spend two hours cleaning out the van and entertaining the children when they and their grandfather arrived for the car. But by the end of the day, Claire understood her mother’s selflessness.

“It taught me to be aware of how many wonderful people there are on this planet earth, like my own mom for instance,” writes Claire, “and to never take advantage of their seemingly endless love.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of CRC says Caplan is the congregant “who notices everyone who might fall through the cracks.”

“And she doesn’t just take care of them, she takes care of them beautifully,” adds Talve. “She notices anyone who might become invisible and takes care of them in an extraordinary way.”

Caplan says her motivation for helping others stems from a lifelong value of being “a passionate defender of the underdog.”

“My mother (Jewish Light columnist Lois Caplan) was a fighter for civil rights and my father was a supporter of aggressive, important causes until the day he died. My parents believe that with privilege comes responsibility.”

With that she lets out a loud chuckle – Caplan, by the way, is a terrific laugher – and adds: “Who wouldn’t be happy? I lead a charmed life. I don’t need to have Prada or Coach or that bull—-. Believe me, I get a lot more out of helping others than they get from me.”

Leslie Caplan

Age:  61

Family:  Divorced, one daughter, Claire, 20

Home:  Olivette

Occupation:  On the cantorial staff at Central Reform Congregation, part-time caterer, freelance songstress and songwriter

Fun fact: Singing relaxes her.