Alumni Spotlight: Dean Shapiro

Dean Shapiro
Dean Shapiro participated in the AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation (RSD) to El Salvador in 2005. He is currently a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

What brought you to do the Rabbinical Student Delegation?

As soon as I heard of it I knew immediately that I had to go on it. I had lived in the developing world before in Cairo, and I had a sense of what life was like there. When I heard about this trip to El Salvador I knew immediately that it would be a very special experience for me and that I would get to learn and listen in different ways.

Has the pluralistic component of the trip influenced your studies or work?

I had very few pluralistic experiences before RSD. So it was a first experience for me to sit down and not just talk but really study together. We had magnificent conversations and got to know each other as individuals and as Jews. I carry from the experience in El Salvador a mindset that has shifted. My presumption is now one of klal yisrael, of believing that we are all of good faith and committed to the Jewish people, that there is so much that unites us and that we have profound shared bonds.

How did RSD influence you as a future rabbi?

One of the most important lessons I got from RSD was the consciousness of the power of the rabbi. As rabbis we have the ability to mobilize through communication and organize a wide group of people.

In my preaching at a range of synagogues I've gotten to speak about social justice issues, and in particular international development issues, from a real firsthand perspective. I'm far from an expert on it, but I can offer my first-person perspective – what I experienced and the people I talked to – and can frame it in a context of Jewish tradition and text and hopefully use communication skills to mobilize people.

Have you found an outlet for social justice since your trip?

I'm an intern at Progressive Jewish Alliance, an organization that works to promote social and economic justice in our communities by educating and harnessing the power and consciousness of California Jews. I am working on the Just Journeys campaign in cooperation with hotel workers and the Jewish Funds for Justice. It focuses on learning how we can be ethical hotel guests because housekeepers, many of whom are immigrant women, have such difficult jobs in ways that are invisible to most of us. How can we be helpful as we travel and make our travel decisions ones that promote justice? It's so easy to forget that our behavior impacts other folks.

Have any of these preaching experiences stood out?

I gave a sermon at my congregation, Kol Ami in West Hollywood, that was very powerful for me and the congregants. About a year and a half ago we had an incredible, unbearable heat wave. The haftarah [reading from the Prophets] that week talked about injustice and water. I spoke about the needs of the billion people around the world who don't have reliable access to clean drinking water and what an impact that has on our planet, on individuals, and disproportionately on women and girls. I had placed a small bottle of water under everyone's chair that they hadn't noticed beforehand and told them to go out into the city and give it to someone that they saw that was in need of it, as a tangible way to be conveyors of God's justice. It was very powerful to see over a hundred people walk out with bottles of water and follow up with me that they had bought more cases of water and had been spending the week passing out whenever they were at a red light and saw a homeless person.

And then I recognized that as a future rabbi that I would be able to translate my experience perhaps dozens or scores of times so that the work would continue to flow. It was a very powerful experience for me, and I don't think I would have had the courage to speak on the water issue without having gone on the AJWS trip – it would have been purely theoretical had I not talked with farmers about what it meant to have a new electric pump in their well.

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