Common Cause, Uncommon Caring
12/17/08
Assistant Managing Editor
Judy Shapiro is just your average Jewish woman with a cause. Or, to be more precise, nine or 10 causes. Whether it’s Soviet Jewry, Israel’s missing soldiers, organizing bone marrow registry drives, promoting Jewish heritage programs, boosting the morale of the Israel Defense Forces, mobilizing against Iran’s nuclear program or fighting against the division of Jerusalem, Judy Shapiro is well known among fellow Jewish activists for being front and center. “I care about issues, not organizations or committees,” says Shapiro. “That’s why I can go to any politician and talk about things that are important, because I follow the issues, not organizations or campaigns.” It’s rare to attend a major Jewish event in New York, or even many minor ones, without seeing Shapiro in the audience or on the dais. And if the event is part of the annual lineup of Jewish Heritage events organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, she was involved in its inception and planning, too. “I don’t know anyone who cares more deeply about the Jewish people,” says Marcy Fishman, director of Jewish Heritage New York. “She was one of the founders of Jewish Heritage Week back in the mid-‘70s, and now more than 30 years later continues to serve as active and dedicated co-chairman of Jewish Heritage NY, the expanded project.” No cause is dearer to her than that of the MIAs. She wears dog tags bearing several of their names around her neck as well as a pendant with the Hebrew inscription that translates, “If I forget Jerusalem may I forget my right hand.” “She thinks of all the soldiers as her children — it’s a very personal thing,” says Fishman. She can rattle off names of missing soldiers and their Hebrew names as if they were part of her family, recites psalms for them, knows details about their families. “Yehuda Katz’s father was saved by Raoul Wallenberg,” she notes during an interview. Shapiro was born in Paterson, N.J., and raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Retired from the public school system seven years ago, Shapiro, who says she “doesn’t like to talk about numbers” (read: her age), divides her time between volunteering at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, planning Jewish Heritage activities and traveling to Israel, which she has done more than 60 times, sometimes on missions but mostly at her own expense. She attributes her community involvement to the example of her parents, Dorothy and Sam Shapiro, a homemaker and small businessman, and European immigrants. “They didn’t ever limit their outreach to the community around them,” says Shapiro. She recalled how, when she mentioned that an ill colleague needed money for a blood transfusion, her father gave her the money to help her. “I learned responsibility to my neighbors, friends and family. And responsibility to one’s own community and your connection to it.” It was during her public school service that she first saw the value of public events celebrating Jewish culture and pride. In 1976, she recalls, Mona Steinhaus, a parent at PS 207 in Marine Park, Brooklyn, brought the rabbi of the Marine Park Jewish Center into her classroom to talk about Chanukah. Looking back with a laugh, she figures it probably violated a church-state rule or two and might not be possible today. “That was really the beginning of Jewish Heritage programs,” she says. Now she works with the JCRC to implement a Jewish Heritage essay contest as well as a Holocaust essay contest and numerous events with public officials such as the five borough presidents and the city comptroller and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. The events traditionally begin around Purim and culminate with the Salute to Israel Parade in June. She is gratified that a large share of the essay contestants are not Jewish. “It reflects the diversity of New York City,” she says. “It’s remarkable the number of responses.” Shapiro served two six-year terms on the board of the JCRC, but recently relinquished her seat because of term limits, reluctantly, but with understanding. “They have to open space for other people,” she says. Shapiro, who took a course in Holocaust instruction at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, in 1980, views education about the Shoah as “vitally important not just to Jews but to the world. As [philosopher] Sidney Hook once said, ‘As go the Jews, so goes the rest of the world.’ ” Shapiro also devotes much of her time to advocating bone marrow registration, in which blood samples are collected for possible genetic matches with cancer patients. It’s important enough that she once urged a pregnant woman waiting for someone else at a blood drive to give her own sample and when the woman resisted because of her condition, found a doctor to say it was OK as long as she was in good health. “I first met Judy when I was searching for a donor for a bone marrow transplant,” said Jay Feinberg, who heads the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and whose successful battle with cancer beginning in 1991 sparked a widespread bone marrow drive movement. “She came to my rescue, helping to promote donor drives in Brooklyn. She even arranged for politicians to attend the drives and get tested to join the registry. I remember she was instrumental in a “Jay Feinberg Day” in Borough Park. Without her hard work on my behalf, I probably would not be here today.” In her spare time, Shapiro sends out e-mail blasts about such issues of concern as Iran’s impending nuclear armament and urges people to participate in Packagesfromhome.org, a Web site that sends care packages to Israeli soldiers who have no family in Israel. She takes pride in the fact that so many powerful causes are driven by women, such as mothers of terror victims or missing soldiers. “I am not a feminist, but I am so much strengthened by the roles that women play,” says Shapiro. “We learn on Passover that on the merit of women Israel is redeemed. If you want to get something done, go to women.” Although Shapiro refers to her work at the Conference of Presidents as “just another pair of hands,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice president, likens her to the “unsung hero” who found the vial of oil that lasted eight days for the Chanukah miracle. “Everyone talks about the miracle but not the person who found that vial of oil,” says Hoenlein. “She is one of the unsung heroes. She’s been working with us for decades as a full-time volunteer and earlier as a part-time volunteer. “Every fiber of her being is devoted to helping the Jewish people.” Shapiro says she hopes her involvement, particularly with the essay contests, will spur young people to follow her example and get involved with causes that not only help others, but allow people to help themselves. “Being properly Jewish is a source of strength to me,” she says. “Whatever I do, I get something in return. It makes life more special and brings me to the nicest people.”

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10/03/2013 - 12:39

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