JEWISH EDUCATION WITH HEART: Chicago’s Jane Shapiro wins a major national award for her Orot Center’s effort to make learning not just something of the mind but also of the body and soul

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

On paper, being over-educated or over-qualified to teach in her Orot Center for New Jewish Learning is never an issue for Jane Shapiro.

She is a Princeton graduate, earned a master’s in Jewish history from Columbia University and possesses a doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. And yet one of her recent highlights was co-teaching a yoga class in Wilmette for Orot.

“In starting Orot, we realized there are many Jewish people who are accessing spiritual practices, spiritual community, ancient wisdom, and they are coming through the door of yoga and perhaps Eastern meditation traditions,” Shapiro said of her sessions that strain muscle and sinew, yet relax and focus the mind.

Orot 2016

“When they think of their Jewish life, they think of it as only being in their head, of being disconnected and not being spiritual in any way. One population we built Orot to serve is people who never realized you can find that deep spiritual connection to Judaism. We wanted to open the door, or we say, find your light, to show that Judaism is also a spiritual practice.”

Shapiro teamed with yoga instructor Deb Wineman in a class at Yogaview on Green Bay Road advertised as a way to ”experience yoga as a way to connect to your essence – your center – oneness.  Both yoga and Jewish practices reveal that everything you are looking for already exists within you.  It is when you pause, slow down, let go and expand, that you are able to connect with the pure unconditional love that is our true nature, a special class that will help you welcome in sacred joy through an all-levels yoga practice and timeless Jewish wisdom.

“When you inhale, you are taking the strength from G-d. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world.”

While Shapiro brought her Torah insights to the class, Wineman described herself as a “wandering Jewish yogi who has found her way home.” Through a soulful flow-style class infused with philosophy, ancient wisdom and beautiful music, she helps students of all levels feel whole.

Such creative packaging of Jewish education has enabled the three-year-old Orot to become a cutting-edge educational program for some 500 Jews ranging from ages 15 to 90 all over the Chicago area. And in building up the quality and quantity of an average of four weekly classes, Shapiro recently garnered perhaps the most prestigious Jewish educational award available nationally.

She was named one of three winners of the Covenant Awards for excellence in Jewish education in early June. Each winner got a $36,000 prize and a $5,000 donation to their institution from the New York-based Covenant Foundation. Harlene Appelman, executive director of the foundation, said: “Each of the 2017 Covenant Award recipients is a dreamer, and each brings with them a breath of optimism for the field.”

As usual, Shapiro looked deeper than the actual honor itself to describe the meaning of the Covenant Award. She traced how Chicago’s philanthropic Crown family, a major funder of the Covenant Foundation, wanted to provide creativity and new ideas in Jewish education.

“It’s a huge honor to have this kind of acknowledgement and celebration,” Shapiro said. “It’s really quite an experience to be honored by them.

“They realized Jewish educators work in a small field, off in a corner, and what they do and how they do it is pretty much unrecognized in the community. They wanted to shine a light and give recognition, to show what inspiration and creativity and innovation can look like through the work of these individual educators.

“That’s why they noticed what I’ve been doing and what Orot is doing. I’ve taught for 30 years. I love to teach bible and Jewish history and literature. For many years I taught information, I taught literacy. Now I’m more interested in (teaching) transformation. How do people change over time? How do I shift as a teacher to accommodate what’s happening? It’s a holistic approach to education.”

Orot was the culmination of all of Shapiro’s teaching experiences that underwent their own transformation.

She is the founder of Jane Shapiro Associates, a consulting practice working with Jewish organizations around vision, adult learning, curriculum and professional development.  Then, she gained some key insight as associate director of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning in Northbrook, working with teachers across North America and Israel and assisting new communities in the development of Melton school sites.  At Melton, Shapiro became a yoga advocate, following the lead of the boss.

“When I met her, she was in her 70s,” Shapiro said of Melton. She was sharp-witted, nimble in mind and flexible and creative. When she told me she practiced yoga, I thought I would be like her. She practiced yoga until she was 88. She was a role model for me.

“Good yoga teachers will tell you the benefits of your life occur when you’re off the mat. You’ll be in another moment where you realize you’ll utilize something you learned, like using your breath when you’re stressed. Looking at two opposing forces and staying calm. Lots of different perspectives in life come from yoga. I found that to be true.

“Judaism that is a 5,000-year-old wisdom tradition. How can I help you as a teacher access your tradition? The Torah in your life is your wisdom tradition. How can we integrate who you are as a full person with the wisdom tradition? That’s what I learned from practicing yoga.

“A lot of the teachings of yoga are almost word-for-word out of Chasidic literature, about how to be a Jew, to find a deep sense of inner light, of inner vitality, to practice your Judaism from this sense of innerness.”

Shapiro also served as coordinator of mentoring for students in the master of arts in Professional Jewish Studies program at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

In advancing the level of Jewish education in the Chicago area, she became of the same mind as Florence Melton colleague Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman.

“She said there’s all this (creative educational) stuff happening on the coasts – why can’t we have this in Chicago?” Shapiro said. “Everyone thinks Midwestern, it’s boring. There’s not much happening here.”

Shapiro was unafraid of startups. In 2004, she helped found the Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie. She describes Kol Sasson as a “partnership minyan,” traditional in practice but where both genders play shared roles in leadership. She continues to serve as the congregation’s “gabbai,” or manager.

“My father was a businessman, an entrepreneur who was in the real-estate business,” Shapiro said. “So I like the startup style. I said ‘let’s do it.’”

Joined by Minkus-Lieberman and Rabbis Sam Feinsmith and Jordan Bendat-Appell, Orot began as a half-day of learning in which 70 people were counseled by five teachers on how to prepare spiritually for the High Holidays.

Branding the organization’s roots as a “Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland moment,” Shapiro recalled the founders believing “let’s put up a shingle and start inviting people to come. I don’t think we knew what would happen. It was awesome.”

Orot describes itself as providing opportunities for cultivating transformative habits of body, heart, and mind that lead to greater life wisdom, meaning, and compassion. In addition to yoga, classes and retreats cover music, art, and creative writing in an attempt to empower and support individuals to look to use Judaism as a source for personal, relational, and communal transformation.

Specific class subjects include Shabbat as a Mindfulness Practice; Gateway to the Heart: Finding Your Way Into Jewish Prayer; The Lights We Illuminate: A Hanukkah Workshop; Singing Our Way to Freedom: A Song Workshop for Passover.

Classes and workshop fees range between $20 and $25. Registration is available on-line at

“We want to break down the notion that Judaism is only in your head, that it’s only a scholarly read-the-text tradition,” Shapiro said. “It’s very much a stereotype. In that way, Judaism has ceased to speak to a lot of people. We were interested in bringing people’s full-life experience, as embodied people – interest in art or music. Those are interests of the body as much as anything else. Also mindfulness meditation. We want people’s full life experience to connect to Judaism, and it’s our role as educators to find those places where the connections happen.

“We also do mindfulness and the reading of poetry, to slow down approach to language and look at things carefully. I use a lot of music, with communal singing events with the harmonics of community. These are all ways where the educators of Orot look at what Jewish and human needs do we see in the word today? How do we as Jewish teachers address what human beings need in this day and age?”

Orot has not established a one-size-fits-all central headquarters. Classes are held all over the area. Shapiro said the spread-out strategy was on purpose. Suburban and city students have different desires and different demands for Jewish education.

“You have to structure based on where our students are located,” Shapiro said. “How often will they make a once-a-week commitment? We found that people will want to sample a one-time thing or a series of three (classes).

“We originally thought we’ll build a center. But people from the city and the suburbs aren’t going to drive to one place. Those are business decisions, part of being a startup.

No matter what the location, most Orot attendees had one bottom line.

“If you want information, just Google it or go to your phone,” Shapiro said. “You don’t need a teacher now to give you information. All of us have people coming to us seeking something more deeply satisfying than just information. They recognize Judaism is a wisdom tradition and wanted access to it.

“They wanted it in a way that was not judgmental. It may or not be attached to any Jewish ritual practice. People could be accepted wherever they were – and however they came into the community. I’m a big believer in ritual practice in synagogues. My organization is not saying ‘replace that.’ We’re just interested in opening doors to people. There’s a way into this. There’s richness to this. How can we support your growth?”

In shifting the style of teaching, Shapiro said the instructors had to aim at an outwardly bigger target.

“Rebecca said we want to speak to people’s heads, hearts and bodies,” she said. “Previously people talked to the head.  We wanted to access people’s hearts.”

In doing so, Shapiro and colleagues had to adopt “lifelong education” for teachers. What they learned coming out of college or even a decade into the profession may not be right for the task at hand.

“I’m a teaching junkie,” Shapiro said. “I love to teach. I never teach the same thing twice. I never pull out of a file cabinet something I’ve taught four or five times before. I always create new lessons for my students. I never recycle at all. I always shape for this particular place. I have to stay on my toes in my preparation.

“Being a good teacher means I’m always learning. I always have 25 books. I’m always learning Jewish texts. I just feel the best model I can be to my students is I wasn’t born learning this stuff, I’m not a genius and I’m not even a scholar. I was born to learn, and let’s learn together.”

When she gets off the yoga mat, Shapiro’s specialties are Bible texts along with Jewish and secular poetry. “That’s my sweet spot,” she said. “And I sing. I’m a culture junkie.”

The entire teaching corps “complements each other,” Shapiro added. “Orot is bigger than each individual teacher. We have heavy hitters as teachers. They are very knowledgeable Jews. They can address a variety of texts and variety of topics. It’s fine to be smart, but how do you put that across?”

Orot has come a long way in a short time, the Covenant Award the shining symbol on the mantle. So what is Shapiro’s five-year plan going forward?

“I’d like to see a bigger community of people,” she said. “People who come to Orot to take classes would feel like ‘I’m an Orot Person.’ There’s a certain pride in we’re meeting their needs and they feel connected to each other, they’re connected to our mission of bringing this education to people’s lives.

“I’d love to see more classes. We’re always producing content. We’re graduating this summer a whole faculty of mindfulness educators – seven amazing people training with Rabbi Feinsmith. I want us to have pockets of places all over the city for parents, children, teachers, the elderly. I want that kind of deeper, speak-to-the heart, in more places in the community so we can have an impact.”

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