Lionel Kaplan, known affectionately as “Lonny,” died in Princeton on June 3. He was 69 years old.
A strong supporter of American Jewry and its close ties to Israel, Kaplan served as a leader of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) since 1988, when he and his wife, Gail, co-chaired its Princeton-area chapter.
From there he became a member of the Princeton area’s executive committee and the New York regional council. His first national position with AIPAC was development chair in 1994; he went on to become AIPAC president in 1998 and chairman of the board in 2000.
“Lonny’s effective leadership helped grow and expand the influence of our movement,” said a statement from AIPAC’s press office a day after his death. It called Kaplan “an extraordinarily dedicated leader of the pro-Israel movement” and “an indefatigable and passionate advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Said Roy Tanzman, a friend of Kaplan for more than 30 years, “When people didn’t know about AIPAC, he was involved with AIPAC.” Tanzman, a Woodbridge attorney, is a past president of the State Association of Jewish Federations and the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. “He was there when there were only 300 people at its national convention,” Tanzman noted.
Apart from AIPAC, Kaplan was heavily involved in the UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet. He also served as president and campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks and a board member of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
“Having called Lonny a friend and advocacy colleague for more almost 40 years, I have a personal sense of loss,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association. “We will miss the leadership and engagement.”
Born in Trenton, Kaplan was a graduate of Harvard University and a member of its varsity football team. He later graduated from Rutgers University Law School and became managing partner of Joseph D. Kaplan and Son, a law firm based in Trenton that was started by his grandfather in 1939.
Although he considered himself a “proud” liberal Democrat, Kaplan occasionally crossed party lines when he preferred a Republican candidate’s policies toward Israel. Most notably, he backed Rick Santorum, a conservative U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, during Senate campaigns in 2000 and 2006. They had become friends in 2000, when Kaplan was AIPAC president and Santorum was seeking Jewish assistance.
“His supporters came to me and said, ‘Lonny, can you help?’ And I did,” he told NJJN in a February 2012 interview.
Kaplan told NJJN he was urging fellow Jews to look past Santorum’s views opposing abortion, contraception, and church-state separation to consider the Republican candidate’s support of Israel.
Kaplan is survived by his wife, Gail Friedman Kaplan; daughter Shana Epstein; brothers Robert and Richard Kaplan; and three granddaughters.
Funeral services were to be held June 6 at The Jewish Center in Princeton.