SPRINGFIELD – In Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro’s Rosh Hashana sermon this year, entitled, “What is Your Inspiration?” he touched on some of the more 250 Sinai Temple bulletin articles he has written over the past 25 years.
“God willing, our conversations over the years have given you some of whatever is your inspiration. God willing, the wisdom and kindness of Judaism speak to you as they do to me. What a privilege to talk together, to have shared these 25 years, and to have grown to be who we now are,” Rabbi Shapiro concluded.
To celebrate those 25 years of growth and inspiration – as well as Rabbi Shapiro’s 36 years in the rabbinate – the congregation will honor him with a weekend of events in late October.
The celebration will begin on Shabbat, Friday night Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. with “Behind Closed Doors: What rabbis talk about when they think congregants aren’t listening!” This service will feature several of Rabbi Shapiro’s closest friends in the rabbinate who will have an unscripted, open conversation about life in the rabbinate.
“Speed Torah: What’s your favorite bit of Torah in the whole wide world?” will take place on Shabbat morning with Luncheon Saturday, Oct. 26 from 9 to 11 a.m. The guest rabbis will each offer a ten minute presentation on their favorite text of Torah, followed by lunch. A gala celebration and festive dinner will be held Saturday evening, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m.
“We really wanted it to be something that he would love and we wanted it to be very celebratory and very much ‘him,’” said Marlene Gordon, co-chair of the celebration along with Liz Leshine.
“We want to create a memory for him,” Leshine said. “We want to celebrate him as a congregation.”
Leshine, a member of Sinai Temple all of her life, recounted that one of the first things Rabbi Shapiro did when he arrived in Springfield in 1988 was officiate at her father’s funeral. Years later, Leshine and her family went to Israel with Rabbi Shapiro where he officiated at her daughters bat mitzvah, which she calls – “a magical ceremony.”
These connections to Rabbi Shapiro are why “I am so pleased to be co-chair of this event,” Leshine said.
Born in Montreal, Rabbi Shapiro was raised in Toronto. His family belonged to Temple Sinai, a Reform temple. “It was a more of a traditional Reform congregation than many others might have been back in the day and back in those times…It was a rich, nourishing community,” he recalled. “My parents were very involved and very committed as Jews themselves. My dad was a president of the congregation in the 1960s. And my grandparents, although they weren’t religiously connected, were all very strong Jewish images because they came out of this Yiddish-speaking world. One [his paternal grandmother] was a very secular Yiddishist. So it had nothing to do with Jewish religion but there was a sense of Yiddishkeit and Jewish identity that was very, very strong. Since each of these people primarily spoke Yiddish, there was a certain aura about them that made them indelible in my experience.”
Rabbi Shapiro’s father was a physician and as a youth he thought he might become a doctor. But when he sat down with his father to look over college course catalogues, including the pre-med program which included chemistry and physics, he realized he really was more interested in studying history and philosophy.
“I remember kind of deciding right then and there – if I hadn’t already decided – I sure wasn’t going to become a doctor,” he recalled.
He entered York University in Toronto as a Humanities major. In his junior year, he started thinking about becoming a rabbi.
“It wasn’t any one thing,” he said. He had begun teaching Sunday school at the synagogue where he grew up. “I was passionate about that. I loved the learning in order to teach and I loved the teaching itself.”
During that time, the Soviet Jewry movement was intensifying and he became involved in organizing on behalf of Soviet Jews, attending rallies and demonstrations, and letter-writing.
“I became very involved with that and all kinds of social justice issues,” he said. “I realized that I really loved learning, and reading, and teaching, and social justice, then there couldn’t be anything better than to become a rabbi…It was definitely a good move. I am very, very happy and would not do anything else but what I have ended up doing.”
He graduated from York and then attended Hebrew Union College and was ordained in 1977. His first position as a rabbi was at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto where he served as associate rabbi from 1977-1982. He then was rabbi of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, N.Y. from 1983 to 1988, before arriving in Springfield.
“I thought the community upon my first connection, and still so, was very open to asking good questions: is what we are doing the right thing, are we doing enough, can we do more, can we do it differently? The congregation has always been responsive to change and introspection and growth,” he said. “The congregation has always been very open to what we can do to do things better, how can we do things better, who are we? That has been a constant theme – important to me and important to the congregation.”
“When he came I think he unified a congregation that was a little bit in multiple directions,” said Marlene Gordon. “He was able to unify everybody really quickly. Within the first six months he had everyone on the same page, the place was energetic, the congregation grew.
“I think he has been a great inspiration and source of energy for the congregation and for the whole region. He is involved in ecumenical things within the greater Springfield region, he gets together with all kinds of clergy in the community. He is also active in Reform Judaism in the greater region and on the national level. He is a major religious influence in the whole community. He is brilliant and he is energetic and passionate about what he does. He spends every waking moment doing his job, and that is a lot of moments because he doesn’t sleep a lot,” Gordon laughed. “He does everything with wonderful humor.”
Steve Sussman, a longtime member of Sinai Temple and a past president, also cited Rabbi Shapiro’s energy. “He is a person who is on full speed all the time, able to switch between getting ready for services and doing sermons and phone calls to bereaved and sick people, and committees and religious school, and yet at the same time always looking to bring up something new. So his energy is just tremendous.”
“He has just been a great, great teacher,” Sussman added. “I know personally, I have learned a lot from him. Not just about things, but about what the options are for me as a Jew.”
Jeff Cossin has been president of Sinai Temple for the past three years. He has been a member of Sinai since he was born.
“He has been my rabbi for the past 25 years. He has done all of my kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs and funerals for my mother and father, so he has played a very important role in my life. He is my friend and mentor,” Cossin said.
Cossin jokes that it seems that he spends every waking moment with Rabbi Shapiro. As president, Cossin meets with the rabbi every Wednesday for 90 minutes to discuss temple business. “We don’t have an executive director at the temple, so basically he becomes the rabbi and executive director at the same time…the two of us work very well together.”
Cossin is also one of the regulars at Rabbi Shapiro’s Torah study session.
“He does a brilliant job at Torah Study. He prepares a beautiful work of art. He starts and sometimes you see where he is going, but sometimes you don’t see where he is going, but when he finally gets there at the end of the hour, wow, it is a lot like a journey – it’s an hour’s journey of education…At the end of the hour you go, ‘Wow, that was spectacular,’” he said.
But Cossin adds that he thinks the rabbi learns just as much from the Torah study group and the rest of the congregation.
“Torah study sometimes becomes a ‘bounce a new idea off the congregants session.’”
A few years ago, Rabbi Shapiro entered into the issue of ethical kashrut.
“He wanted to make some changes at the temple and the best way of sort of finding where people are is to bounce off the 25 or 30 of us at Torah study. If 25 of us think this is nuts (which does not often happen), he will say to himself, ‘Well, I don’t think this is going anywhere.’ But it is a safe place to do it and to bounce new ideas, most of which fly.”
The kashrut idea went over well. The congregation spent a few months learning about the basics of kashrut, including ethical kashrut (which takes into account things like animal treatment and environmental impact) and, Cossin said, they developed a Reform response to kashrut.
“There are a lot of exciting things going on at the temple and in the community, and he is involved in all of it,”
For more information about Rabbi Mark Shapiro’s anniversary weekend, call the Sinai Temple office at