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Changing Course – Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro may be retiring from Sinai Temple, but he’s not leaving

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro’s last day as spiritual leader at Sinai Temple in Springfield will be June 30. But don’t think he has been slacking off in the days before his retirement.

While he says he could do any Torah study he wants on Shabbat morning, one Shabbat in May, the Reform rabbi chose to share the new Conservative prayer book, Siddur Lev Shalem with the members of his Torah study group.

“My inclination now, as it would have been 10 years ago, is to say, ‘That is something new, it is something important and historic and I want to draw attention to it,” he explained, pointing to two boxes of the prayer book in his office.

To prepare, he called Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz at Temple Beth El, the Conservative synagogue just down the street, to ask her if she had any comments to share with him about the new siddur – a testament to his good working relationship with his local rabbinical colleagues.

“I have always loved working with Rabbi Shapiro,” said Rabbi Katz. “He is a good friend and a thoughtful leader. Since I arrived in the area, we have worked closely together and it has been very satisfying and a lot of fun.”

That week Rabbi Shapiro and his Torah study group delved into the new Conservative siddur.

“If I were asleep at the tiller I wouldn’t be doing this, but it is too interesting,” he said.

It is this energy, curiosity and love for Judaism that marks Rabbi Shapiro’s nearly 39 years in the rabbinate, 28 of them at Sinai.

But at 66, he says he is ready to retire from his post.

“I guess there are two reasons a person would retire,” he said. “One is that you are sort of tired, you’re burned out, you’re finished, you did what you wanted to do. And that is not why I am retiring.”

He says he is still as inspired by his work as when he first became a rabbi.

“I still love this job and I love what I do,” he said. “And I love the opportunity to be creative with programs and to be present with people and to visit with them and to innovate… I’m still excited and enthusiastic about the whole area of Jewish living, Jewish leadership and what rabbis can do to advance Jewish living at this time.”

So why is he leaving Sinai now?

“The reason I am retiring is because I’m young and thankfully healthy and energetic so this just might be a good time to find some new outlets. So I’m not exiting, I’m just changing course.”

“At the same time,” he added, “I think it would be really good for the congregation to turn a page. A new rabbi would be good, I think, for the congregation. I have been the rabbi for a generation, so it is good for there to be change for the congregation.”

This summer, Rabbi Howard Kosovske will take the reins as interim rabbi at Sinai, while the congregation decides what they want in a new permanent spiritual leader.

Rabbi Shapiro has a few projects in mind for when he leaves Sinai – he really wants to work in the area of social justice and tikkun olam.

Sinai member Steve Sussman said it is just like Rabbi Shapiro to be thinking about social justice as he plans his retirement.

“I’m sad to see him go, but also happy for him,” Sussman said. “I am hoping he will do some things he enjoys doing and I know he is going to be doing so much that is not just recreational, so much that is for the Jewish world and for the community at large. That is just the kind of person he is.”

Shapiro said that he doesn’t want to step on the toes of the new rabbi, whoever that might be, but he and his wife Marcia plan to stay in the Springfield area, which for them, is home.

That is good news to Bruce Leshine, who calls Shapiro not just his rabbi, but his good friend.

Leshine first met Rabbi Shapiro in November of 1988, just three weeks after the young rabbi arrived at Sinai Temple. Leshine’s father-in-law, Sam Plotkin, had just passed away and Rabbi Shapiro came to the family’s home.

“I thought what Mark did was remarkable,” Leshine recalled. “He was a brand new rabbi and his first large event was the funeral of a gentleman who was very well-known in the community. There were as many people there as on a High Holiday. I thought what he was able to do was wonderful. While we had just met, he made us feel like he had known us his whole life.”

Rabbi Shapiro says that he is proud of many things that were accomplished during his tenure at Sinai.

One is his involvement with the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts, in which he had served as president and is now treasurer.

“I like clergy, people who have made a professional choice along the same lines that I have,” he explained. “I like that other clergy have made a life choice that is not that dissimilar to me in terms of what they do…It is beneficial to spend time with them. I can learn from them.”

Rabbi Max Davis at Congregation B’nai Torah, the Orthodox shul in Longmeadow, is one local clergy member who has enjoyed spending time with Rabbi Shapiro.

“I am deeply grateful to Rabbi Shapiro for his passionate example of tikkun olam,” Rabbi Davis said. “I recall as well that when I began my position at Congregation B’nai Torah, Rabbi Shapiro was among the first to reach out, extend greetings, and shmooze over coffee.”

In terms of the general topic of interfaith relations, Shapiro says: “I do think if you want to understand Judaism, one way to understand it is to get a better understanding of people who care about religion but who aren’t Jewish. That is fascinating, I think. What does religion mean to someone who is not Jewish? This causes you to reflect more on who you are.”

For years he has led the annual “Sinai Temple Institute for Christian and Muslim Clergy and Educators” which Rabbi Herman Snyder founded many years ago.

These interfaith clergy learning sessions have focused on topics such as “End of life” decision-making, the Ten Commandments, and study on the Books of Deuteronomy, Psalms, Esther and Isaiah. Last year his topic was “Reformation” in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which occurs next year.

“It was about reformation and how do Jews respond to change, how do all of our traditions deal with change?” he said. “As a result of my doing these things Sinai has a wider profile in the larger community that suggests we are open to the broader world.”

The interfaith clergy institute is just one of the things Rabbi Shapiro considers a highlight of his time at Sinai.

He is proud of his Saturday morning Torah study group. He is proud of his interaction with the children of Sinai. He loves to hang out with the kids, read stories and wear fun costumes.

“I hope we have done good things for the kids and for education,” he said.

Rabbi Shapiro teaches the 10th grade Confirmation class, and each year takes them on a retreat to places like Washington, D.C. to visit Capitol Hill and in 2007 to Atlanta, Georgia and Selma, Alabama on a civil rights journey.

He says another thing he is proud of is Sinai’s style of worship.

“We don’t do it the way we used to do it. And that’s just a slow, slow, change. When I came, there were some things that were obvious, like the rabbi and cantor each used to wear a robe, and I knew that I didn’t want to be wearing a robe for long. So at some point, I don’t remember when, we stopped wearing the robes,” he said. “In general there has been a change in North America and in this community which has led to more informality and I think a better sense of community and spirituality.“

A more concrete example, he says, is that he no longer leads services from the bimah.

“No one would think twice about it anymore, but in the sanctuary the bimah is seven or eight steps up. We don’t lead the service from there at all anymore. We lead the service on the floor of the sanctuary,” he said. “We’ve done that I guess for 10 years…It’s a mammoth difference that I love. Also, the way in which I speak is hugely different. Twenty-five years ago a sermon was much more formal and now it is much less formal. I still think it is substantial and written in proper English, but the style is much more personal much more conversational.”

Another thing that is new is “Visual T’filah” – a visual prayer service that he leads several times a year. Instead of using a prayer book, the service is put on power point slides and shown on a screen at the front of the sanctuary. The slides show not just the prayers, but artwork and photographs that help to illustrate them.

“It’s fascinating,” he said. “If you have a prayer book in your hand – even those who know it – the congregation’s heads are [looking down] but if the service is up there [on the screen] and everyone is looking forward, it is a different feeling.”

This different way of doing things is one of the reasons Bea Hano feels Rabbi Shapiro has been such a good fit for the temple. She was president of Sinai and a member of the search committee when he was hired.

“He has just been very creative in his approach,” she said. “And he took us very strongly into social action, locally and around the world.”

In keeping with that commitment to social justice, when Sinai throws Rabbi Shapiro a retirement party on June 18, the centerpieces on the tables at the party will consist of items that will be donated to one of three local organizations that Rabbi Shapiro supports: ,Rachel’s Table, the Jewish Federation of Western Mass.’s hunger prevention organizations; The Gray House, the social services agency in Springfield; and Links to Libraries, which collects and distributes new and gently used books to children and libraries.

The 38 centerpieces will consist of non-perishable food for Rachel’s Table, toiletries and other non-perishables for the Gray House and books for Links to Libraries.

Besides leaving a legacy of tikkun olam and a devotion to social justice, Rabbi Shapiro said he hopes he is leaving Sinai a more “joyful, creative, compassionate community”, citing a line in Sinai’s mission statement.

“I hope if you were to ask any member of Sinai Temple that they would say yes, we are a joyful, creative, compassionate community,” he said. “If that is what they would say, then I would say, that is pretty good…If in any way the congregation reflects this, then I think I have done valuable work.”

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