Zach Shapiro '92

 

Place of Honor

%299%left%Is Colby an unlikely place to begin a vocation as a rabbi? Not at all, says Zach Shapiro '92, who serves at the University Synagogue in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. "I think that the religious atmosphere at Colby was very healthy," he said. "I always felt like there was a very positive religious presence, but not an overbearing one."

Shapiro studied biblical Hebrew under Professor Tom Longstaff (philosophy and religion), shadowed a rabbi during Jan Plan and participated in Colby's Hillel chapter, but his passion for Judaism began long before his college years. "I first thought about being a rabbi when I was about eleven or twelve years old," he said. "I went to Jewish summer camps, which really turned me on to what it could be like to be a teacher and a learner my whole life." Today, at the University Synagogue, Shapiro leads sermons and ceremonies and also teaches, with students ranging from toddlers to the elderly. "We consider our synagogue a place for lifelong learning . . . so every opportunity we have to teach, we seize those moments," he said.

Shapiro began his rabbinical journey at Colby, taking religion courses but also majoring in Spanish, which helps him today with his work in different L.A. communities. During his senior year Jan Plan in Worcester, Mass., shadowing a rabbi he got "a good taste of what it's like to be in the rabbinic field," he said.

%300%right%After Colby, he entered a five-year graduate program with the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion,a one-year immersion program in Israel and four years studying in the U.S. "Three weeks after my graduation from Colby, I was on a plane to Jerusalem," Shapiro said. After an "eye-opening" year abroad, he and his fellow rabbinical students were sent to small communities throughout the United States to train. Shapiro was assigned to communities in Michigan, Texas, Montana and Missouri. "Those are good experiences because in many ways, we're it. If there's a question of a Jewish life cycle or an important issue going on, we're the ones that they turn to."

Now, as a rabbi in an 800-family synagogue, Shapiro plays a very important role in celebrations and ceremonies. Last summer he had his own celebration: he married his partner, a cantor (a Jewish professional who leads music) from another congregation. "It was somewhat of a big thing in our community, that a gay rabbi and cantor had this moment," he said. "Within the reform movement, acceptance of gays and lesbians is just about a non-issue."

From births to weddings, Shapiro is there for all parts of the life cycle for the people in his community: "The honor of being invited into someone's home to do a baby-naming ceremony is such a beautiful thing. If they are getting married or having a bar or bat mitzvah or doing another kind of celebration of life . . . it is important for me to let [them] know what it means to me when I'm allowed into their lives like that."

The congregation has a religious school as well as a full-time preschool. And even with a full staff (including Shapiro, a cantor, a senior rabbi and a rabbi emeritus), the University Synagogue keeps busy serving one of the largest Jewish communities in California.

"We wear many, many hats," he said. Colby may not be a religious school, but that doesn't prevent religious officials from getting their start at the College: "I am able to take a lot of the life lessons I learned while on campus and use them in my rabbinate, use them to help listen and to teach and to learn about others, to reach out across the lines."

,Anne Marie Sears '03