Eva Lou Chapman, a"h: the 100 percent Jew
In every city outside the New York area in which Torah flourishes today, there were one or two pioneers who did the heavy lifting to build Torah institutions decades ago. Their primary contribution was not money but sweat equity and determination. What inspired those pioneers is, in many cases, a mystery, as few had any formal Jewish learning beyond an after school cheder at most.
In Houston, that couple was Julius and Eva Lou Chapman. From the time of their marriage as 18-year-olds, they were determined to grow as Torah Jews. Only a tragic fire in their home leil Shabbos parashas Va'eschanan, in which Mrs. Chapman perished and Mr. Chapman (Yosef Chaim Alter ben Malkah) was left in critical condition from smoke inhalation, could end their 63-year love affair.
They took the lead in bringing a Torah Umesorah school to Houston in 1962, and again in 1969 after the failure of the first effort. Mrs. Chapman would prepare and bring to the school hot lunches each day on her way to her job as a legal secretary. Later, the Chapmans would bring the first SEED program to the city as well. (Both Dr. Joe Kaminetsky and Rabbi Avi Shulman were guests in the Chapman home on trips to Houston.)
When their shul moved to a new neighbourhood, the young couple purchased a lot three houses away from the new shul building. Mrs. Chapman, however, dreamed of a mikveh in her own home, and had already written away for plans from the Spero Foundation. When she found that the builder had already laid the foundation on her lot, she traded for another lot further from the shul to fulfill that dream.
On a visit to Houston to check the mikvaos, the Helmetzer Rebbe, an internationally renowned expert of mikvaos, pronounced the city mikveh to be in need of repair, but the Chapmans' mikveh to fully meet his exacting standards. Whenever the mikveh was in use, Mr. Chapman would pile all the kids into their car for a "tour of different neighborhoods" to preserve privacy. At least twice, the shul and all adjacent houses have flooded while the Chapmans' escaped unscathed.
Above all, the Chapmans provided models of a Torah life for others to emulate. Eva Lou's friends were astounded when the young bride would not answer the phone on Shabbos, and even more so when she became the first young woman in the city to put on a sheitel. Whenever they learned a new halacha – often from meshulachim passing through the city – the Chapmans immediately implemented it.
As Rabbi Shalom Salfer, the principal of the second day school, said in his hesped, rarely does one meet someone whose beliefs and actions are fully congruent. Eva Lou Chapman was "one of those 100% Jews." The Chapmans, for instance, would never apply for scholarships for their children. They preferred to give back-dated checks. "Why should someone else have to collect for me?" Mrs. Chapman would say.
She did what was right without compromise and without paying attention to obstacles. When she decided that a certain Calvin Klein billboard (circa 1979) that her youngest daughter had to pass on the way to school was bad for her neshamah, she phoned the mayor of Houston to protest. The billboard was removed a few days later.
The Chapmans biggest sacrifice was to send away their children to yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs – the boys to Memphis and Baltimore and the girls to Rabbi Myer Schwab's seminary in Denver and Prospect Park. Every bit of new Torah knowledge with which the Chapman children returned immediately became part of the home.
HOUSTON IS A MAJOR MEDICAL CENTER, and the Chapman house became the residence of choice for those accompanying relatives for treatment. It was not fancy, but visitors knew they could rely on the religious standards. If a visitor, however, requested Eva Lou to double-wrap food heated in her oven, she was delighted to do so and took no offense. At the most recent chasanah of a grandson in Jerusalem, a long line of Jews from Israel formed to thank her for all she did for them while in Houston.
Among the Chapman guests was Mrs. Hinde Tress, when her husband, the great Agudah leader Mike Tress, underwent open heart surgery with Dr. Denton Cooley surgery in 1967. As a consequence of that visit, Mrs. Chapman started a N'shei Agudas Israel chapter, almost certainly the first west of the Mississippi.
Two decades later, while distributing Chanukah presents for N'shei to Jewish children in Houston hospitals, Mrs. Chapman came to the name of a child with no parents listed. She inquired of the nurses, and learned the parents intended to put the infant up for general adoption. Mrs. Chapman sprang into action. First, she located the daughter of an adam gadol close to two of her children, who did not yet have children yet and was eager to adopt.
Then she persuaded the parents, who had already completed all the necessary forms, to give their child to a Jewish family. (When the father was finally convinced, he confided that his wife is a descendant of Rashi.) That infant is today an avreich in Mirrer Yeshiva.
Rebbetzin Malkah (Mollie) Isbee, later married to the Gateshead Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Gurwitz, brought her Yerushalmi neighbour and the latter's son, who required quadruple bypass surgery, to Houston. She and her neighbour stayed with the Chapmans. As they were leaving, Rebbetzin Isbee issued an invitation to the oldest Chapman daughter, Nechama, to room with her the next year while attending seminary in Jerusalem. At the end of following year, Rebbetzin Isbee made Nechamah's shidduch to Rabbi Zeev Kraines, today the rabbi of Ohr Somayach Sandton, outside Johannesburg.
Aunt Mollie also introduced Mrs. Chapman to what was to become her greatest mission: the clothing gemach of Rebbetzin Isbee's Jerusalem neighbor Rebbetzin Shaindel Weinbach. Eva Lou's efforts on its behalf are the stuff of legend. Once she arrived in Israel with 22 suitcases and 14 carry-ons. (Those suitcases and boxes were carefully divided between clothes that would pass muster in Rebbetzin Weinbach's Mattesdorf neighbourhood and those destined for other clothes gemachim.) The Delta skycaps at Houston airport eagerly awaited the trips of the lady bringing suitcases for "the poor people of the Holy Land."
In later years, she became a travel agent and excelled in finding the cheapest flights to Israel. But there was a condition attached: "Would you mind taking a 'little' suitcase with a 'few' items with you?" The homes of her children were all forward bases filled with suitcases for "Ha'aretz," as she always referred to Israel. When she learned that New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg would be flying with President Clinton on Air Force One to the funeral of Prime Minister Rabin, she called her son Louis in Passaic to urge him to ask Lautenberg whether he could take a suitcase of clothes.
MY WIFE AND I have been close to the Kraines family for nearly forty years, and that meant being swept automatically into Mrs. Chapman's orbit for almost as long. That orbit was so large because she took up so little space for herself. A talkative, outgoing woman, her least favorite subject was herself. Long distance conversations with grandchildren around the globe were inevitably resumed ten seconds after the first time hanging up, with just one more thing she had remembered to share with them.
One of the mourners at her levaya, told me he had been at the Chapman Shabbos table in 1983, the only time he ever met Mrs. Chapman. He insisted repeatedly that it took her over an hour to bentsch. Today when people ask him why he takes so long to bentsch, he invariably answers; "Did you ever see Eva Lou Chapman bentsch?"
She kvelled in her nearly 100 descendants. A grandson learning in yeshiva in Jerusalem received regular care packages of the honeycomb cereal his grandmother remembered as his favorite when he was five. But she had room in her heart for all. She would hug and kiss her daughters' school friends when they came to the house. In her trademark gray bag, there was also room for spices she knew her granddaughter's neighbor liked.
She knew every salesgirl in any store she shopped by name and vice versa. The African staff in the supermarket where her daughter Nechama shops in Johannesburg invariably ask her, "When is your mother coming next?"
On her next to last visit to Jerusalem, she arrived at her granddaughter's apartment in the early evening. Though she no longer moved easily, when she heard that there was a chasanah that evening at Binyanei HaUma of a kallah whose father and brother had been murdered in a terrorist attack on the way to the aufruf, she insisted on going -- but only after her grandson-in-law returned from night seder at 11:00 p.m. She was transported with joy at the chasanah, attended by thousands, just watching the dancing on a video hook-up.
From the chasanah, she and her granddaughter went Shabbos shopping after midnight. The cabdriver who took them to and from the chasanah and then shopping and home – and who knew Mrs. Chapman from previous visits – absolutely refused to be paid for the honor of driving such a great tzadeikus.
SHE NEVER STOPPED thanking Hashem for all His goodness to her. "Who would ever have thought two 18-year-olds would be zocheh to such nachas" was her constant refrain. The bracelet with a separate charms engraved with the birthday of every child and grandchild eventually became too unwieldly to wear.
Over the last few months, she and Mr. Chapman were zocheh to attend the weddings of two grandchildren, one of them in Jerusalem, the bar mitzvah of their oldest great-grandchild, and to spend Pesach in South Africa and Shavuos with their children in Passaic.
She fulfilled every aspect of the prophet Micha's definition of what is good in Hashem's eyes: She did what is right (asos mishpat), loved chesed, and walked humbly with Hashem.
May her memory be blessed