Sunday, November 07, 2021

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, ZTL

Image from Matzav
It is with great sorrow that I report the death of Rabbi Meir Shapiro - a giant in  the world of Chinuch. Announcements like this are often prefaced this way – to the point of becoming a cliché.

But in Rabbi Shapiro’s case it is not just a cliché. When I heard the news last Friday, I started tearing. 

When in 1964 Rabbi Shapiro was hired to be principal of Chicago’s pioneering day school, Arie Crown, it was a small modern Orthodox day school. Rabbi Shapiro turned it into a huge school that has become a home for the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy - from Charedi homes as well as modern Orthodox homes – and everything in-between.  

It has become the model for all other day schools to follow. But don’t just take my word for it. Long ago I was informed by a Torah Umesorah insider that any day school that asks them for advice on how to run a school should look to Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Chicago as their model.

The reason for that is self evident to the vast majority of students, parents, and directors of the school. Of which I was a proud member including having had the privilege of serving a 2 year term as chairman of the board back in the 1980s.

It is rare for most high school students to remember their elementary school with such fondness and devotion. But for Arie Crown students it is the norm. I recall that as a parent and board member at Hannah Sacks Beis Yaakov High School, its then principal told me that most of his students could not wait to leave their elementary school and begin their new ‘careers’ as high schools students.

This was not the case with Arie Crown students. They could not stop talking about their ‘old’ alma mater with love, affection,  and nostalgia. It was a bond that all former Arie Crown students shared. It was not unusual for some of those students to pay a visit to their old school, pay their respects to their former principal and see how he was doing. That principal was Rabbi Meir Shapiro.

His devotion to his students is legendary. It wasn’t about his being their friend or letting them get away with ‘murder’. It was about the way he educated them. Not by telling them what to do. But by being a role model.

Arie Crown is known for it’s emphasis Midos  - character development. This is not to say that other schools ignore it. It is to say that Rabbi Shapiro emphasized it as a condition for Torah study. He correctly understood that ‘Derech Eretz Kodmah LaTorah’ – respect for ones fellow man precedes the study of God’s word.

One example of this is that Rabbi Shapiro insisted that students must rise for any adult that would enter their classroom. Not just for rabbis. Not just for parents. But even for the janitor. Those children were trained from nursery school and beyond about the concept of Kavod  Habrios. That every human being is created B’Tzelem Elokim - in the image of God and to be treated accordingly. 

Then there is the example he set in the Mitzvah of .Nichum Aveilim – comforting the bereaved. When a tragedy like death struck any member of the Arie Crown ‘family’ he would take the entire 8th grade class to be be Menachem Avel in the form of a Shiva visit.

There are so many examples like that – that it would be impossible to list them all in a single post.

This is who Rabbi Shapiro was. He was an ‘other directed’ person. He never saw himself as anything other than an educator of Jewish children. His humility inspired not only his students. It inspired all of us - parents, teacher, board members, and the community at large of those that knew him. It is one thing to teach that character trait. It is another to be the living embodiment of it. He inspired not only students to work harder at character development. He inspired all who knew him, too.

I believe that Rabbi Shapiro’s connection to his Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Kamentsky (one of my personal heroes) is what made him who he was. I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that he was the personification of Rav Yaakov in Chicago. Rabbi Shapiro always relied on his Rebbe when difficult Shailos came up in the school. 

When the board of directors wanted to innovate a new program or a new fund-raiser, he would consult with Rav Yaakov, report R’ Yaakov’s advice to the board, and we followed it without dissent. This is how much we respected him. Even though Rabbi Shapiro was technically an employee of the board, we considered him our leader and moral guide. He shunned Kavod for himself and ran as far away from it as he could. It was because of this quality and his devotion to his students that so many people respected him..

His leadership style of humility and character development as a principal for 40 years is what molded Arie Crown. His students learned from his example and themselves became exemplars of good character - who so loved their alma mater and its principal. 

Rabbi Shapiro’s sage advice was constantly sought by both the current Head of School, Rabbi Eli Samber, and by my son in law, Rabbi Menachem Kirshner who is the current Hebrew Principal. I know his advice will be sorely missed. 

Baruch Dayan HaEmes