Obituary: Karen Shapira / Tireless worker for Jewish causes here and overseas
By Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Karen Shapira, whose work on behalf of world Jewry made her one of the most respected lay leaders in North America, and who helped guide Pittsburgh's Jewish community through tense times at home and abroad, died at home in Fox Chapel Tuesday night of breast cancer. She was 60.
Also a major force in United Way of Allegheny County, Mrs. Shapira used her considerable clout on behalf of civic and humanitarian causes from Pittsburgh to Ethiopia.
A full-time wife and mother in one of the city's most prominent families -- she was married for 41 years to David Shapira, chairman and chief executive of Giant Eagle -- Mrs. Shapira transformed herself into what she called a "professional volunteer," meaning that she considered such work a serious, full-time commitment. Her style was often described as quiet but effective, although her family said she could be tough when the situation warranted.
"She operated in a very male-driven organization, and some of the old-school guys didn't know what to make of her," said her daughter, Laura Karet of Fox Chapel. "I watched her in public forums standing up to the old-line wisdom, but she had done the work and earned her credibility, so they listened."
Mrs. Shapira directed the Israel and overseas activities of United Jewish Communities of North America, going on fact-finding missions, lobbying political leaders and distributing millions of dollars for Jewish needs around the world.
She traveled often to Israel -- sometimes going directly from chemotherapy to the airport -- where she met with everyone from prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon to small-town mayors and recent immigrants. She was also the guiding force of a development partnership in Galilee that has generated more than a dozen civic projects.
"It was never good enough for her to do the work from home. She had to be there to meet the people," said Howard Rieger, president of United Jewish Communities and former longtime president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.
"If I needed eyes and ears on the ground, she would travel on a moment's notice to Moldova or wherever I needed her to go. She believed it was not only her job but her obligation," Rieger said.
Over time, Mrs. Shapira held every significant post at the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, eventually becoming the second woman president in the organization's history, from 1999 to 2001. Until recently, she chaired the $100 million UJF Foundation, which makes grants for educational, cultural and human service programs.
She also pushed for good relations with Pittsburgh's Christian and Muslim communities. When local Jewish leaders were planning a massive rally against terrorism right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mrs. Shapira advocated opening it up to members of all faiths. The event drew 5,000 people to the lawn of the Jewish Education Institute in Squirrel Hill.
Born Karen Adler in Toledo, Ohio, Mrs. Shapira grew up in Tampa, Fla., where her father had a photography business. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where she met her future husband, several years her senior. When he went to Stanford University in California, she transferred to be with him, graduating with an bachelor's degree in sociology.
The couple had three children. As they got older, she began volunteering.
"She just reinvented her career after we all went off to college," said her daughter. "The mom we knew turned into this community activist. It was actually quite shocking."
"She was shy in the beginning, but her passion for the causes she believed in brought out her strength," said Edie Naveh, a federation staff member who often worked with her.
Mrs. Shapira spent years on the front lines of community work. She resettled Soviet Jews in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, seeing to every detail from furniture to welcome baskets, and chaired committees that dealt with some of the more sensitive issues of the day: racial tensions during the time of Louis Farrakhan's polarizing comments, job and housing discrimination against gays and lesbians, political differences over the rising violence in Israel.
"Karen took some courageous stands when it wasn't so easy," Naveh said. "When she was co-chair of the Israel Emergency Appeal, she insisted on bringing in people from the Israeli left as well as the right so that all voices were heard.
"I never met anyone like her, except maybe Frieda [Shapira]," added Naveh, referring to Mrs. Shapira's mother-in-law, a community icon who died in 2003.
When Mrs. Shapira and her husband co-chaired the 2003 campaign of United Way of Allegheny County, the effort increased donations to the agency's core Impact Fund by more than $1 million at a time when overall giving was down.
She was a prime mover in the Early Childhood Initiative, a wide-ranging but risky effort to expand quality child care in the county's under-served communities. That effort fell short of its goals but continues in a scaled-down form, with several successful programs still operating.
Mrs. Shapira assessed the needs of Jewish populations in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Russia and neighboring countries. She went to Argentina after that country's economic collapse wiped out the Jewish community's infrastructure, and worked on setting up relief programs from food vouchers to loan funds.
She was involved with the Falash Mura, Ethiopian descendents of Jewish ancestors who want to move to Israel, and also with efforts to better absorb the Ethiopian Jews who began resettling in Israel in the 1980s.
Much of this work was done in her capacity as founding chairwoman of the Israel and Overseas Pillar of the United Jewish Communities, where Mrs. Shapira was one of the few women to represent North American Jewry at the top level.
Right up to the time she could no longer travel due to her illness, Mrs. Shapira was visiting one of her favorite projects, an exchange program between Pittsburghers and Israelis in the Galilee city of Karmiel and the surrounding Misgav region. Called Partnership 2000, the program involved 14 projects, including schools, camps, a women's health center, small business development fund and job training.
Most recently, she was working on an Arab-Jewish co-existence project, where teams of residents joined in community improvement and leadership training in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University.
"Here we are at a time when real peace might be possible in Israel," said Naveh. "It breaks my heart that Karen won't be here to see it."
Through her work, Mrs. Shapira formed lasting friendships, keeping in touch with people like the young man she met in Argentina who was preparing to move to Israel.
"She kept his name, and on every visit she checked in with him to see how he was doing," Rieger said.
Some of this work she did in the midst of her battle with breast cancer.
"My doctor isn't too happy about this," she once said on her way from the hospital to the airport after a chemo treatment, "but I promised to have my blood checked in Israel. This project is just so great, it's the opposite of draining. It's invigorating."
"She went full bore through the treatments, always with good cheer and optimism," said her sister-in-law, Dr. Edie Shapira. "She didn't want to be seen as a patient and didn't act like one."
Besides her other work, Mrs. Shapira served on the Pennsylvania Commission for Women under Gov. Tom Ridge and the boards of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Shady Side Academy.
She was named a Woman of Spirit last year by Carlow University, and received the 2002 Emanuel Spector Award, the United Jewish Federation's highest honor, as well as its Sonia and Aaron Levinson Award for pursuit of social justice. She was a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Foundation Program for Jewish communal leaders, and a life trustee of the American Jewish Committee Pittsburgh Chapter.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Shapira is survived by another daughter, Deborah Shapira, and a son, Jeremy Shapira, both of New York City; a brother, Robert Adler of Washington, D.C.; and three grandchildren.