Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro closes a book on a half century of sermons

When Shapiro retired in 2000 from BJBE, he did so having forged an indelible, familial bond with his congregants over the course of nearly four decades.

close your books shapiro image
Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro with his new book.

On Rosh Hashanah in 1986, Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro delivered a sermon to his congregants at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE), then in Glenview.  

"The world is out of our control," he said. "Bad things can happen. Our everyday lives contain serious risks; with no immunity granted for those we love and none for us either. We've got to live with all the uncontrollable dangers in life. I'm not sure when life makes something all right, and when we have to intervene to try to make it right. But I know that life's inherent wisdom is often wiser than mine." 

When Shapiro retired in 2000 from BJBE, which later moved to Deerfield, he did so having forged an indelible, familial bond with his congregants over the course of nearly four decades.  

Shapiro was born and raised on Chicago's South Side where he and his family attended South Shore Temple.  

"I would go up to summer camp [Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute] in Wisconsin," Shapiro recalled. "There would be young rabbis on the staff who were teaching, leading services, and playing ball with us. Being a big baseball fan, suddenly the idea struck me that I could do that too. My father wanted my brother and I to become attorneys or accountants. He got an attorney in my brother, but he didn't expect to get a rabbi from me." 

Shapiro's profession was not the only part of his life crystallized by the camp.  

"I met my wife Hanna there," he said. "She was in charge of the waterfront. I was a song leader with a guitar. Our middle child eventually got married to a counselor from that camp. It was a very significant place in our lives." 

Ordained in 1960, when Shapiro joined BJBE, it was still a relatively young Reform congregation.  

A collection of the sermons and columns Shapiro wrote and delivered not only there but throughout a career spanning over a half century have been captured in a new volume called  Close Your Books --  a title derived from Shapiro's request that his congregants set aside their prayer books in order to give him their full attention. 

"If I didn't get them with the first paragraph of my sermon, I realized I would lose my customers," Shapiro explained.  

He never did. 

Shapiro's lessons were replete with pop culture, sports, literature, historical, and current events references. He established an immediate and relaxed familiarity, drawing analogies to Judaism through subjects that included Alice in Wonderland, Watergate, Vietnam, Jimmy Stewart, Woody Allen, and even the M*A*S*H character Hawkeye Pierce. 

Then, of course, there were the ever-present baseball references.  

In one High Holy Day sermon in 1989, Shapiro illustrated the concept of awe through his experience watching the Kevin Costner film  Field of Dreams  in a movie theater surrounded by an audience of sobbing men. 

"And what was the 'awe' that brought tears?" Shapiro asked in his lesson. "We cried, imagining a game of catch with our fathers. We sensed that moment of connection between parent and child to be a moment of awe, a holy moment." 

Shapiro recalled the honesty in speaking to people in a language they could understand. 

"If baseball was what they are interested in, it could be used as a metaphor," he said. "Once, someone in the congregation said to me 'you sound like the same person when you're doing the service as you do in real life.' It was important; a sense of 'we know who you are and you are just like us.'" 

It was that kind of approachability through which Shapiro turned a synagogue into a home merging his own family into the one he built at BJBE -- congregants he looks back upon in the manner of a proud father.  

"I am very lucky," he said. "I have had 30-odd, maybe more, young people who have gone into Jewish professional life." 

In fact, there are more than 100 members of the Facebook group, "I am a Jewish Leader and Mark S. Shapiro was my Rabbi!" 

Laced into Shapiro's lessons was the concept of social justice. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and returned to his congregation to vividly describe the experience and the importance of the work. 

"Ever since then, social action has been a very significant part of the synagogue," Shapiro said.  

It was a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease which led to his retirement. 

"Retiring wasn't as hard as Hanna expected it would be for me," acknowledged Shapiro, now BJBE's rabbi emeritus. "People would come up to me and say, 'I remember what you said to me in a sermon.' For the life of me, I couldn't remember saying it." 

It was Shapiro's son Stephen who gathered and curated the inherent wisdom in Shapiro's sermons in order to create  Close Your Books .  

"He told me 'people really want to read this,'" Shapiro said. "And you know what? He was right." 

"When you touch your Jewish self, you touch a whole civilization, a whole way of life," he wrote. "And there is always more."  

Close Your Books  is available for purchase at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim and on Amazon.com.  

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is a freelance writer living in Chicago. 

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