These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

In Memory of Karen A. Shapira

Posted on November 30, 2017 by Stephen Donshik

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The Day of Learning on Thursday, November 30th, 2017 is in memory of Karen A. Shapira z”l on her birthday. The day is sponsored by Barbara and Danny Shapira. Pardes Dean David Bernstein had the opportunity to recall a fond memory of Karen z”l, “a woman who deeply cared for the Jewish people,all humanity and brought menschlchkeit to all she did.” The below words were shared by Pardes student Stephen Donshik, who said, “She was a very special lady, and I am fortunate to have known her.” May her memory always be blessed.

Born Karen Adler in Toledo, Ohio, Mrs. Shapira grew up in Tampa, Fla., where her father had a photography business. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she met her future husband, several years her senior. When he went to Stanford University in California, she transferred to be with him, graduating with an bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Karen was a passionate and deeply committed member of the Jewish communal family. She embodied an indomitable spirit, determined to reach all people in need and to help Jews, wherever they may be. Karen’s energy, candor and determination will serve as an example for generations.

Karen transformed herself into what she called a “professional volunteer,” meaning that she considered such work a serious, full-time commitment. She was the Chairperson of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and at the time she was the second woman leader in the century old organization. Since then other women have followed in her footsteps.

She also pushed for good relations with Pittsburgh’s Christian and Muslim communities.

Karen spent years on the front lines of community work. She resettled Soviet Jews in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, seeing to every detail from furniture to welcome baskets, and chaired committees that dealt with some of the more sensitive issues of the day: racial tensions during the time of Louis Farrakhan’s polarizing comments, job and housing discrimination against gays and lesbians, political differences over the rising violence in Israel.

Karen assessed the needs of Jewish populations in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Russia and neighboring countries. She went to Argentina after that country’s economic collapse wiped out the Jewish community’s infrastructure, and worked on setting up relief programs from food vouchers to loan funds. In the late 90’s Karen went to Moldova and spent several days training and consulting with local Jewish leaders who were in the process of formulating their first communal strategic plan.

She was involved with the Falash Mura, Ethiopian descendants of Jewish ancestors, who want to move to Israel, and also with efforts to better absorb the Ethiopian Jews who began resettling in Israel in the 1980s. In addition she was committed to assisting Israeli Ethiopians in strengthening their advocacy programs and was one of the key visionaries in establishing the Ethiopian National Project in Israel.

Karen directed the Israel and overseas activities of United Jewish Communities of North America, going on fact-finding missions, lobbying political leaders and distributing millions of dollars for Jewish needs around the world.