Cindy and David Shapira are living legends in the Jewish philanthropic world. Together, they run the Shapira Foundation, and through it they led the development of Onward Israel. David is the chairman of the Hillel Foundation International board of governors, a former board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a member of the steering committee of Mosaic United, an initiative to engage more young Jews in Jewish life and in Israel. Cindy serves as vice chair of the JFNA board of trustees and chair of the Pittsburgh Federation and sits on the board and executive committee of The Jewish Agency for Israel, where she also chairs the strategic planning committee. She is also a member of the board of the Jewish Funders Network and Leading Edge, is a trustee of Brandeis University and was the founding chair of Federations Department of Jewish Education and Engagement.
We caught up with Cindy to discuss Jewish journeys: hers, Davids and the many thousands their philanthropy makes possible.
You are outspoken about the fact that Jewish values guide your philanthropy. What does that look like in practice, particularly in your work with Federation?
Though Davids family has deep roots in Federation, we are both actually relative latecomers to the world of Jewish learning. David sought greater spirituality and started learning with a local rabbi about 25 years ago and has continued to this day. It changed his life. I grew up in an unaffiliated home with no Jewish education, so its been a long and gradual awakening for me. As Ive become more and more involved with Jewish organizations and initiatives locally, nationally and internationally, and cognizant of this gap in my development. I am increasingly interested in gaining knowledge and understanding the marvelous complexities and nuances of our traditions rituals and laws.
Jewish values, concepts and lessons guide our philanthropy and we try to apply these in our work and lives. We are proud to say that regular Jewish learning is also a part of the culture of our professional Federation staff in Pittsburgh,
David and I are relatively new to the Jewish philanthropic space and still evolving our foundations philosophy. However, we think about the core values of partnership, asking why in order to promote reflection and respectful challenge, and embracing change and constant learning. This applies to work with the Pittsburgh Federation, where an amazing set of professionals and lay leaders similarly incorporate and model these values.
Is this what motivated you to spearhead Federations new Department of Education and Engagement last year?
Absolutely. My role in helping to launch the department was based on our Foundations vision – inspired by and adapted from that of Hillel International – that every Jew deserves to have the opportunity and tools needed to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life and learning, and to Israel. Our personal stories affirm what contemporary academic research and centuries of precedent demonstrate – that meaningful Jewish learning and engagement are critical ingredients to thriving Jewish life and strong Jewish communities. Our Federation movement – each of our Federations – can play a major role in this critical endeavor.
We are in a time of real transition in the field of education, and Jewish learning must adapt to this changing and increasingly complex pedagogical landscape. By operating under the umbrella of the Federation system, the Education and Engagement Department is uniquely positioned to provide both the applied research and the network for collaboration needed to drive change. It will continue to add value to the field.
I also want to take this opportunity to say how excited I am that Ann Pava, one of the foremost leaders in our Federation system, will succeed me as chair of the department, and to give a well-deserved kol hakavod to the brilliance and persistence of Dr. Beth Cousens, its professional director.
Why is sponsoring the GA so important to you?
GA is a total happening (you should excuse the expression)! It is a unique experience and one that should not be missed. The Jewish calendar is so full of opportunities for individual and communal reflection and focus. We see the GA as a sort-of communal High Holidays – an invaluable moment for lay and professional leaders to gather as individuals and communities to reflect and refocus together. Well get inspired by a shared vision and purpose, learn from the exchange of ideas and innovation, and commit ourselves anew to our work in the year ahead.
Every year when I see how the GA provides so many leaders with the practical and intangible tools they need to make a difference, I am in awe of its scale, its attention to quality and its breadth. Its unrivaled, and it allows even those of us from larger communities to benefit in ways we couldnt from similar, local conferences.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming young philanthropists?
What an exciting time to get started in philanthropy! There are so many new philanthropic tools and great organizations out there to help you get started. I think the best advice I can give is to have fun with it! Your philanthropy is a part of who you are as a person and as a Jew. You should take it seriously, but also make it yours. If you love working with others – join a giving circle. If Jewish learning has inspired you – support Jewish learning. If you have success in business – bring that professional knowledge and expertise to a Federation committee or your philanthropic investment strategy. Also, dont shy away from collaboration or partnership with other individual philanthropists, foundations or Federation. We all have the same big goal in mind.
What have you found to be the most effective ways of engaging young people in Jewish life?
Authenticity is key. We old people (meaning David and me!) cant design programs around what we were like at a younger age, or what we think young people should want. We want them to do more Jewish; but what motivates them? Our lightbulb moment came when we conceived Onward Israel. We wanted Birthright alumni and other kids who had been to Israel to return to Israel for a more intense, immersive experience. We realized that what students wanted were internships and other resum-building experiences. So we resolved to not build an Israel travel program around internships, but an internship program that leverages the strengths of Israel. This subtle but important distinction can be found in our business model, marketing and evaluation. The moment we stop learning what motivates our customers is the moment they stop wanting our product. W
Meet Jodi Schwartz, JFNA Treasurer
As a Jew living in New York, its sometimes easy to feel like I have every Jewish thing I could ever need. That is actually so far from true. Because of my involvement in the international Federation movement, Ive learned a lot about what it means to be a tight-knit community from my friends and colleagues in smaller cities, and Ive come to appreciate the beauty of every Jewish communitys unique flavor and attitude. And just as importantly, Ive also learned that Jews everywhere have so much more in common than we might think—from New York City to the Quad Cities, we face similar issues, and we all have so much to learn from listening to each other.
Thats why a strong Federation system is, for my money, the best, most effective way for the continental Jewish community to share best practices and learn from each others mistakes and successes. Since all Jews are responsible for one another, it makes sense that large communities should support smaller ones in their times of need, and that we should all join as a people to help fellow Jews in need in Israel and around the world. In this vein, it also makes sense that we should all share our accumulated technical know-how, vision and guidance to advance our shared objectives.