It is important for Jewish kids to learn about Israel.
It’s also important that their education about Israel, which likely will be influenced by emotion and history, be based solidly on fact, not simply on feeling. Truth matters. It is a solid foundation for support; when emotion softens, knowledge is a bulwark.
The goal is to have them love Israel, and to have that love based on knowledge and reality.
That’s what the Atlanta-based Center for Israel Education does.
Adam Shapiro of South Orange has spent most of his career — the last 18 years of it, and he’s young — teaching and then leading the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.
Now, he’s the new president of the CIE, where he can take what he’s learned as a hands-on educator and administrator — an administrator who led his school successfully through the year and a half of covid — and use it to teach both love and understanding of Israel. He did it in northern New Jersey; now he’ll do it across the country.
Here’s his story.
Mr. Shapiro’s life, as he tells it, is a paean to Jewish community and continuity. He’s from Dresher, just outside Philadelphia, and he grew up “in a wonderful Jewish home, with an older brother and sister and wonderful parents committed to Jewish family life, shul, and day school.” His family shul was — and for his parents, still is —Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park; it’s the only synagogue that Frank Lloyd Wright designed, and it’s a building likely to impress itself on a child. The Shapiro children went to the Solomon Schechter school that’s now called the Perelman Jewish Day School, and then to Akiba Hebrew Academy, as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy was called then.
From there, Mr. Shapiro went to Emory University in Atlanta. Before he chose to apply there, following the standard ritual, he visited the campus, during his senior year of high school. “One of the first people I met there was Ken Stein,” he said.
Dr. Kenneth Stein is a historian and a longtime professor at Emory, where he taught Middle Eastern history and political science and focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he’s also, and not coincidentally, the founder of the Center for Israel Education. “When my parents were talking to a friend about how I was looking at Emory, he said ‘You gotta meet Ken Stein,’” Mr. Shapiro said.
The professor and the high school senior met and talked for an hour. “It was the first of many incredible conversations with someone who became a mentor and also a friend,” Mr. Shapiro said. “From the moment I left campus I started filling out the early decision application — by hand.” He got in.
“I learned with Ken, and also with Deborah Lipstadt.” Dr. Lipstadt, another Emory historian, is a well-known researcher and writer who concentrates on the Holocaust; she’s a huge name in her field.
“Not only do I consider both Ken and Deborah as both mentors and friends, but they also helped steer my course and encouraged me to follow my passion as I made my way through school and graduate school,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And they knew that I was passionate about education, both inside and outside the classroom.”
Mr. Shapiro graduated from Emory with a double major, in education and Jewish studies. “I was the first formal Jewish studies major at Emory,” he said. “It was developed by Ken and Deborah and approved during my senior year.”
Next, he went to the William Davidson School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative flagship institution’s education school. It was 2001. “Thankfully, I arrived there before — just a few days before — 9/11 happened,” he said.
“The following things happened — I started graduate school, I got a job teaching at B’nai Jeshurun,” the big unaffiliated-but-still-Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, about 30 blocks due south of JTS, “and when we had our first faculty meeting there, I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to another young teacher, a senior at Barnard named Rena Miller-Jacobs. I had the amazing opportunity to meet the woman of my dreams,” who now, 20 years later, is Rena Shapiro.
Far more soberly, that first post-college teaching stint helped Mr. Shapiro learn how to deal with disaster. “My first day of teaching was Monday, September 10,” he said. The next time the class met, “Day 2 of my educational career, with three students in the class who had parents who were in the towers — they’d all gotten out safely….” His voice trailed off. “I don’t remember every day of teaching in my life, but I certainly remember that day.
“It crystallized in me, the power of education. It’s never just about the material. It’s about the education, about what you’re teaching, but it’s also about caring about the students. That’s stuck with me. I might not remember all the names of the students in the room then, but I can and do remember every single one of their faces.
“Being concerned about students’ academic needs and also being concerned with their social and emotional needs — that’s a teacher’s job.
“It’s a teacher’s job to help kids to think, and also to help them grapple with difficult things.”
Three months after Mr. Shapiro graduated from Davidson, he started working at what was then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, and became the Golda Och Academy midway through his tenure there.
“In my early years, I taught American and European history, Tanach, and Jewish history in middle and high school,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be in that school environment, and that I wanted to work with students both inside and outside the classroom.
“In my first years there, I stayed in the classroom, and I also did a lot of experiential education, which was in its infancy then. We got a grant from Avi Chai Foundation and launched shabbatonim, which were wildly successful.
“I always kept a foot in the classroom, even through my time as head of school. In my 18 years in the school, I taught for at least 15 of those years.” He’d worked with Dr. Stein to develop a course about Israeli history; “I never stopped teaching that course,” he said. “I would teach it to seniors during the first semester.” The second semester, the whole class would go — and still does go, and went even last year, the plague year — to Israel.
“The beauty of teaching about Israel is that it is never the same place twice, so it’s never the same course,” he said. “There’s always something different; an election, a conflict, some other issue. I never taught it the same way twice. Some years, I would start in that year and make my way backward; some years I would start in the 1880s and work my way back to the present.
“And the experiential work that I did also was wildly important, because connecting with students outside the school building helped me understand their passions.”
Among the many programs he’s proud of, one stands out “After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we wanted to do something to help, so I created a connection with the New Orleans Jewish community, and then 12 or so months after the storm we took the first of what was 10 relief missions there to do rebuilding work.
“We took hundreds of students down there over the years, and we really connected both with the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities. We made broad inroads into the Lower Ninth Ward, we made good friends and built houses with Habitat for Humanity.
“I believe strongly in the idea of tikkun olam. To get on an airplane, and pick up a toolbelt, with the hammer and the nails, and to do that rebuilding with our hands — that was wildly powerful. The effect on students’ lives, and on my life — I still get messages from students who went on those trips, about other rebuilding work that they are doing.
“That is the power of educational experience. What I have learned over my career can be transferred to so many settings and educational environments, to all students — not only from pre-K through 12th grade, but through to young adults, and not only there. For everyone, that connection, something you can learn, put your hands on, dig your hands in — that help you understand what you’re really doing.”
At GOA, Mr. Shapiro moved steadily upward through the administration. He had been the upper school’s dean of students; spent two years as that school’s principal, and then was head of school for six years. “I had the opportunity to work on all different sides of the school, and I can honestly say that I loved all of those experiences,” he said. “They enabled me to see the school from every different angle. I always felt that I was doing meaningful work, and that was important to me.”
Why is he leaving?
“After 18 years, it’s okay to make a change,” he said.
He’s taking all his experience and knowledge over to another organization that he’s loved since it was created. “When Ken created the Center for Israel Education in 2008, as an independent entity with its own board of trustees, he asked me to sit on that inaugural board,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I happily agreed.
“Ken started the center and has been its president. His brain is unbelievable. He understands not only history but how to create content to teach it.”
Dr. Stein is stepping down as president, but he is not leaving CIE; instead, he’ll become its chief content officer, “and he always will be its founding president,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Mr. Shapiro is only changing jobs, not communities. He will continue to live in South Orange, and his children, Vered, Tamar, and Noam, will stay at GOA, where they’re seventh-, fifth-, and second-graders. “I’m very glad that we can continue to be a part of the community,” Mr. Shapiro said. “I care for the community that we have been part of since before my children were on Planet Earth. It was simple; as I sought out this next move, I knew that I did not want to uproot them.”
He will continue to work mostly from home for now; eventually, when it is safer, when his children can be vaccinated, he’ll travel to Atlanta, but his office will continue to be local. “Being in the metropolitan area is a big plus,” he said. “There are many people in this part of the community who care deeply about Israel education.”
As for the Center for Israel Education, “it possesses the most rich and complete treasure chest of content about Israel’s history,” he said. It provides context and perspective, and to me that is critically important, and we will continue to do that.
“Because I’ve been on the board all this time, I know how the organization works, and how it can continue to grow and change,” he continued. “I am excited about the opportunity to take the lessons I have learned and expand it to a larger audience. It is very exciting to do something different.
At CIE, Mr. Shapiro will “work to ensure that good, properly sourced Israel information is getting out there. That is vitally important.” So is fund-raising, a task that he gladly undertakes, he said. “Telling CIE’s story is something I enjoy doing. I like talking to donors and supporters about the mission. Getting philanthropic dollars into an organization is not just important, it’s also enjoyable, because you are able to express its mission and help a donor understand why support is so vital. Taking the lessons I learned at GOA and applying them in this setting will be really important, and how to do that — the marketing and messaging and getting information out there — are important lessons that you learn in a school environment. And they’re quite transferrable.”
The center’s focus is on dispassionate information, not on advocacy, Mr. Shapiro said, so the politics that overheat the question of Israel now are not relevant. To perform that neat if difficult trick, “you stick to the content. To the primary resources.
“Every source that we cite has five sources that back it up.
“That’s why CIE was created, to be able to make content that educates but doesn’t tell people what side to be on. It’s not about right versus left. The content is so strong and so rich that it’s for everyone.
“That’s why I have been drawn to CIE. Its goal is not to tell you how to think. That is problematic. Its goal is to help you dive deeply and get an understanding that provides context and perspective. When you have that, it doesn’t matter what side you are on.
“What CIE has proven is that this approach appeals to people of all different shapes and sizes, Jews and non-Jews, people on the right, on the left, evangelical Christians….
“Anyone who cares deeply about learning about Israel can find content that will educate them.
“Education is never about telling a student what to think. It is about teaching critical thinking skills, and helping them to synthesize the information so they understand it and can think for themselves.
“That requires real material, not just surface-level learning.
“If you just do advocacy, you are missing a lot. I am a proud supporter of Israel. I would shout that from every rooftop. As the leader of a day school, I took great pride in the fact that we send students to Israel in both ninth and twelfth grades. I believe in the power of the Israel experience and in the power of learning about it. Students should be able to understand all of the nuances and challenges that exist. What CIE has proven is that education for teens is wildly important before those students get to a college campus.
“Helping them grapple with those complex topics and debates earlier helps set them up for success.”
You can learn more about the Center for Israel Education at israeled.org.