Submitted by: Jill Hertzman
It is with sadness and heartache that I write this, a tribute to Mark Shapiro, my friend, for a short time my rabbi, and the husband of my dearest friend. Mark — principled, sensitive, joyful, funny, a touch of mischief, a passion for tapping into our Jewish past and present, with the intent of securing the future.
Mark died on Tuesday, July 21, at his home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a few months after reaching his 70th birthday. He succumbed to a rare disease of the brain, which slowly diminished his physical and cognitive ability. He leaves his wife Marsha and sons Daniel and Jordan. The decision was made to bring Mark home to Toronto and the graveside funeral took place on Sunday morning in the Holy Blossom section of Pardes Shalom.
Marsha and Mark, both Torontonians, were married shortly before leaving for the first year at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, followed by four years of study at the HUC campus in Cincinnati. Those close to him were delighted that, after graduation and a joyful Semicha/Ordination weekend, Mark would begin his career at Holy Blossom Temple as Assistant Rabbi. He loved being part of a large synagogue and all that a prominent, respected, and well-run organization offers. It did set the tone — in fact was a springboard — for the rest of his Rabbinate. Work was stimulating and fun with colleagues like Cantors Sheldon Merel and Beny Maissner, Rabbis Harvey Fields, Jim Prosnit, Steve Garten, and of course his esteemed office next-door neighbour, Rabbi/Senior Scholar Gunther Plaut. Mark was continually amazed by the volume of correspondence that came across Rabbi Plaut’s desk and how ably he managed it.
Mark served HBT from July 1977 to December 1982. He was high energy, hardworking, and drawn into every aspect of congregational duties. He had an infectious laugh, a playful sense of humour, decency and kindness toward every cohort in the synagogue. No detail escaped his eye. His sermons were thoughtful, articulate and warmly delivered. He was constantly reading, writing, studying, thinking – he loved it all and thrived. Evenings were filled with meetings, programs, Hebrew and Senior School, weekends with Shabbat services and Religious School (fortunately for us, he was a wonderful teacher and storyteller). Here was my window into the demands of a congregational rabbi. Though Marsha was busy with graduate school and work, Mark’s schedule allowed me to steal some extra time with her.
He wanted to draw in younger congregants, ages 25 to 35, and created programs that were well attended and received. We had never built a succah at home, until Mark inspired us to.
He was troubled by the plight of the Vietnamese “Boat People” and encouraged a small group of congregants to sponsor a refugee family. In fact, there was recently a reunion with that family at a Temple reception, linking their lives to the synagogue’s current efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees.
Mark, together with Alan Bardikoff (then a Ph.D. candidate at OISE), was asked to chair a new initiative, the Holocaust Education Committee. (I was privileged to help draft a bibliography of source material.) The committee’s focus and reach went beyond the Jewish community to the general community, and into the school system. It laid the groundwork for the new curriculum and for Holocaust Education Week, which continues to this day, a week-long event each November, with the most impressive and comprehensive programs in multiple venues.
The Shapiro family moved to White Plains, New York for his next posting at Woodlands Community Temple, and then in 1988 to Springfield, Mass, for his long tenure at Sinai Temple, where he continued to grow and shine in his congregation and beyond. Look on your bookshelf and you may find a copy of his book, The Gates of Shabbat.
The title of Rabbi Emeritus was conferred in 2016 upon his retirement. And then came a surprising offer Mark couldn’t resist: he was asked and agreed to become the Rabbi in Residence at the Episcopal Church of Springfield. What a marvellous way to strengthen interfaith relations and share his gifts of Jewish knowledge, teaching, and homiletics.
In the last few years, when Rabbi Yael Splansky knew the Shapiros would be visiting in Toronto, she invited Mark to lead Torah study, a treat for him and a chance not only for the “old-timers” to reconnect but for newer people to experience Mark’s lens into text and poetry.
I’ll end on two personal notes. First, what I observed and admired for as long as I knew Mark Shapiro was the way he cared for, honoured and loved his parents, his children, his extended family (from the youngest to the oldest) and most especially, Marsha. Second, he was the only person who called me Jilly, and it always made me smile. But that was Mark, he knew the way to make you smile and warm your heart.
Submitted by Judy Winberg, Past President
Mark and I were childhood friends at Camp Wahanowin and through high school at York Mills Collegiate. I remember him as a kind and thoughtful friend. I also remember that Mark was funny and talented, often landing lead roles in camp and school productions. He could engage an audience even then.
When Mark and Marsha moved from Toronto we kept in touch through family friends and usually had at least one summer visit.
Holy Blossom Temple was always special to Mark not only because he was a Torontonian but especially since this was his first rabbinic posting. In more recent years Mark and I had conversations about the progress of the Temple renewal project and I know that he followed the HBT website to keep up on significant events.
Most recently when our son and future daughter in law were planning their wedding it turned out that none of the rabbis at Holy Blossom were available on the date that they chose. With Rabbi Splansky’s blessing, I reached out to Rabbi Mark and invited him to come to perform the ceremony.
While Mark, as a Reform rabbi in Massachusetts could officiate there, the province of Ontario required that he be licensed locally. With the help of the CCRJ (Canadian Council for Reform Judaism) Mark’s papers finally arrived the day before the wedding.
Mark spent time preparing with the bride and groom and given the close family ties and his personal warmth and good humour Mark enveloped us all in a beautiful and meaningful ceremony. We were so honoured to have “Rabbi Uncle Mark” with us for that special Simcha.
When preparing thoughts about a revered rabbi who has passed we often turn to the Torah for inspiration. For me, Shakespeare comes to mind. Mark, in grade 9 as Malvolio in Twelfth Night proclaimed that ….…”Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Mark Shapiro clearly achieved greatness in his life as a husband, father, son, brother-in-law, uncle, friend and esteemed rabbi. We all mourn his loss.
May his memory be for a blessing.