Jane Shapiro ’76
Courtesy Jane Shapiro
Jane Shapiro ’76, co-founder of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning in Chicago, says her views on Jewish education for adults are a bit radical. “I actually think this isn’t Jewish education anymore,” she says, describing the avant-garde teaching that happens at Orot. “It’s a gateway experience for people who’ve been on the outside of things who want to come in.”  

Orot offers multidisciplinary classes, workshops, and retreats throughout the Chicago area that use yoga, meditation, creative writing, music, visual arts, and social activism combined with Jewish texts and teachings to deepen adults’ spirituality and understanding of their faith. They also sponsor mindfulness retreats and workshops on various topics, such as cooking and achieving balance in the lead up to the high holidays in the fall. Online learners can also access teachings via audio recordings and a weekly blog (click here for a recent teaching written by Shapiro).  

The innovative approach recently helped Shapiro earn the prestigious Covenant Award for 2017 (she’s one of three recipients). The award honors “those who have made an impact on Jewish life through innovative educational practices and models,” according to the Covenant Foundation website. Each recipient receives a prize of $36,000 and an additional $5,000 for her home institution — in Shapiro’s case, for Orot.  

Orot, which is the plural form of “light” in Hebrew, was the brainchild of another Princetonian, Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman ’97. Shapiro had known Minkus-Lieberman since she was a teen and wrote a recommendation letter for her when she applied to Princeton. The two reconnected years later when Shapiro recruited Minkus-Lieberman to teach at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University in Northbrook, Ill., where Shapiro was an administrator at the time.   

Shapiro recalls that her younger colleague approached her and three local rabbis about the kind of innovation in Jewish education happening on the east and west coasts, in the hopes of bringing this kind of creativity to the Chicago area.  What she said struck a chord, and in 2014, Minkus-Lieberman and Shapiro founded Orot together with Rabbis Sam Feinsmith, Jordan Bendat-Appell, and Josh Feigelson.

“We wanted to create a place where people could express what’s important to them and also have the perspective of how Jewish tradition could support their own growth,” Shapiro explains.  “It’s not telling people what you should be doing or thinking.  It’s really asking how [studying Judaism] can be helpful to you.”

Shapiro says her experiences at Princeton, where she studied Near Eastern studies and religion, were critical in shaping her educational and professional path.  Shapiro went on to study ancient Jewish history at Columbia University and completed a doctorate in Jewish education in 2016 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.   

Shapiro’s Princeton thesis adviser in Near Eastern studies, Mark Cohen, introduced her to the world of classical Hebrew poetry and the history of Jewish prayer, while historian Theodore Rabb instilled the value of teaching in a multi-disciplinary way. And Shapiro gained an appreciation of the Talmud from the late Dr. Rudolf Mach, at the time the University library’s curator of Near Eastern manuscripts.  “He loved the Talmud,” she recalls, “but he was not Jewish and said some eye-opening things to me that showed me Jewish texts were of interest to the world and not just a small group of people.”

It is that realization that helped drive Shapiro to do the work that recently earned her the Covenant award.  While Shapiro is honored by the recognition, she also hopes that the light it shines on Orot’s mission will serve a higher purpose.  

“I really believe in the need for building the compassionate side of our brain that happens through mindfulness and other spiritual practices. … I would be thrilled to have people think about what we do and how it could be applied in a broader way,” she says.