After 40 Years, School Is Finally Out — for the Principal

By Miriam Colton

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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The final school bell rang for Rabbi Meir Shapiro last week.

Shapiro has retired after 40 years as principal of the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Skokie, Ill. He leaves behind a powerful legacy for the Chicago Jewish community, which paid tribute to Shapiro earlier this month, when more than 1,200 parents and students attended a Torah dedication and dinner in his honor. Skokie streets were closed off for the hours-long Torah procession, which included a decorated float, live music and appearances by local dignitaries.

At a time when Jewish schools focus on improving test scores and classroom technology, the man viewed by his students as a saintly patriarch is a throwback to another generation — one that was slower paced and gentler. While Shapiro, 72, says he has always endeavored to provide a top-rate education, he also dropped the frills and instead focused on derech eretz, or interpersonal respect and kindness; his goal was to run a school in which students would simply be happy.

Almost every morning, Shapiro stood at Arie Crown’s front door to greet his students by name, asking them, “Where’s your smile?”

“It’s important to make sure the students are in a good mood and get off to a good start,” he told the Forward.

Shapiro taught by example. When there was a death in a student’s family, he personally brought that child’s classmates to the house of mourning, to teach them what it means to comfort the bereaved. He also taught them to stand up whenever an adult entered a room. “They stand up for the custodian,” said Shapiro. “They learn respect for people.”

“You need to practice it yourself, and people [will] see it in the individual,” he said, “otherwise it’s just words.”

Shapiro has Jewish education in his genes. His father, Dr. Joseph Shapiro, was a pulpit rabbi and founder of the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh in the 1940s; in the 1930s his parents sent him and his siblings to school in New York (“at a time when nobody did it,” he noted) so that they would have a decent Jewish education; his three siblings, wife Elizabeth and children all have served as educators. Shapiro attributes his devotion to Jewish education and respect for people to his father, as well as his personal teacher, the famous Torah sage Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, former dean of Yeshiva Torah V’daas in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Although Shapiro is uncomfortable discussing himself, he shared a personal story occurring some 50 years ago, when he was accompanying Kaminetsky out of the yeshiva building. Although Kaminetsky had recently had undergone foot surgery, he refused to enter the manually operated elevator and instead walked down the stairs in terrible pain. Afterward, he explained that he thought the custodian had brought the elevator up to his floor while cleaning the building, and he did not want to take the elevator back down because it would have left the custodian to use the stairs.

“It left a tremendous impact on me,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro has been an educator for more than five decades (he worked in New York before moving to Chicago). He has taught three generations of students in some families. And over that time, he has witnessed tremendous changes in Jewish day school education — from the post-Holocaust 1950s, when parents were grateful simply to have a school, to today, when Jewish schools compete with top secular private schools.

The most significant evolution in Jewish schools, he says, is the increased focus on individual children. With the development of new teaching methods and the recognition of learning disorders such as dyslexia, teachers are now trained to accommodate various learning abilities.

“We used to work with the whole class; we put everyone in one basket,” he said. “Now, there is greater recognition that each person learns differently.” Arie Crown offers different academic levels in each grade, and typically keeps class size under 20. In the 1970s, it was also the first school in Chicago to house P’tach, a nationwide program for students with learning disabilities.

But there have been troublesome changes over the years as well, says Shapiro, such as the exploding cost of Jewish schools and increasing external cultural influences. When he started as principal in 1964, school tuition was $30 a month; now it tops $800. There is increased social pressure on kids toward drugs and pop culture, as well as a rise in the number of broken families, which, he said, “does not make it easier on the home.” With both parents working full time in many families, Shapiro said that educators have had to step up and take on “an extended role.”

In the past four decades, his Orthodox school has expanded to a 61,000 square-foot facility, a student body of more than 600 girls and boys (in separate classes), and a faculty of more than 100. Shapiro’s administrative arrangement at Arie Crown also has been unusual and something he considers “a blessing”: He is not involved with fundraising, scholarship decisions or school finances.

“We wanted him to do what he does best and maximize his true talents,” said Barry Ray, an Arie Crown graduate and past board president. “It would be sinful to take Pavarotti and have him sweep floors of an auditorium.”

Perhaps the best proof of Shapiro’s accomplishment is that his successor, the current assistant principal, Eli Samber, is an Arie Crown graduate. “I have tremendous excitement and almost reverence for the position,” Samber said. Samber recalls that when he was a student, Shapiro would run around with his class on trips, despite suffering from severe arthritis. Shapiro even has refused to utilize a golf cart that the school’s board bought for him to get around the school.

As Arie Crown enters a new era, Samber is confident in the legacy Shapiro leaves behind. “It’s about not separating book knowledge from moral character,” Samber said, “the constant synthesis [between] knowledge and proper human behavior.”

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