Tag Archives: #tikkunolam

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality


On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

A Special Special Olympics Coach

In 2014, my husband Larry spent eight days in New Jersey as the New York State triathlon coach at the Special Olympics USA National Games. He described his experience as “incredible” and “life affirming.” As soon as he arrived home, he tried to catch up on his sleep as he got less than five hours a night for the entire trip. How he got to this nirvana of sleep deprivation is part of Shapiro family lore.

Almost twenty years ago, Larry announced at the dinner table that he had signed the family up to volunteer at the New York State Special Olympics Summer Games that were being held at University of Albany in early June. My children had been involved in sports for a long time, and Larry recognized that many volunteers had made their swimming, cross country, and track and field meets possible. He felt the four of us should pay it forward by contributing our time to the intellectually challenged athletes at the state-wide event in the track and field competition.

We enjoyed our experience enough to sign up to volunteer again the following year. While at the games, Larry was asked to help out with the Saratoga County track and field program that met April through mid-June at the Saratoga Springs high school track. Larry’s co-worker also volunteered, and the two of them drove up every Monday and Thursday from downtown Albany. After a couple of years the two of them extended their time commitment to include helping at local Special Olympic meets.

As the years progressed, Larry took on more and more responsibilities. He became head coach and held additional practices for athletes who exhibited high levels of skill in an event. He started a cross country running program, volunteered to coach for the Clifton Park bowling program, conducted coaching certification classes, and served on various Special Olympic committees. Larry knew that his involvement in Special Olympics would give him focus and purpose after he retired. It was shortly before his last day of work that he found out he was chosen as one of the track and field coaches for the National Games in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July 2010. One of our athletes came home with silver medals in the 1500 and 3000 meter runs.

Along the way, Larry had convinced me and a number of friends to become track and field coaches, and we all gained much from our participation. The best part for all of us was being with the athletes at practices. Twice a week every spring, over forty athletes ranging in age from sixteen to eighty years old, several coaches, and numerous parents and group home staff would gather at six o’clock at the track.  The athletes ranged in age from eight to seventy-five, with their intellectual and physical challenges ranging as widely as their ages. Larry started everyone off with a team cheer P-A-C-E-R-S! Then the activities began. On the field, some athletes threw a softball and had their distances recorded by the coaches. A group of stronger athletes worked with a coach on the turbo-javelin and the shot-put. Others were practicing the standing long jump. On the track, athletes, depending on their levels and abilities, participated in runs, walks, wheel chair events. The visually challenged ran twenty-five to fifty meters holding a baton strung through a 50 meter rope that was held in a straight line by cheering team mates. Practice ended with Larry gathering up the athletes for one more cheer before they went home. Two or three times a season, coaches and members of the team participated in local competitions on a Saturday morning. Whether we were at practices or at our meets, our athletes’ times and distances were secondary to just having fun. The cheers were as loud for the athlete who threw the softball two meters as it was for the athlete who came in first in the 1500 meter run.

Larry took pride in the accomplishments of every athlete and was always recruiting new team members. While helping with Special Olympics bowling during fall 2013, Larry watched an athlete decimate the pins with his powerful swing. Larry persuaded Rich to join track and field and use that strength to throw shot-put and the turbo javelin. By the end of his first season, the athlete impressed officials at the state games in Buffalo enough for Rich to be chosen to compete in Nationals in New Jersey. While there, he not only won a gold medal in his division in the shot-put but also came home with gold in the turbo jab with the longest throw of anyone in the country in the turbo javelin finals.

Saying goodbye to the Pacers when we moved to Florida was one of our hardest moments.We follow their accomplishments on Facebook and through emails. In honor of our athletes, we have named the small body of water in our backyard “Pacer Pond.”

Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew expression that means “repairing the world,” the moral principal that states every individual should leave this world better than he or she found it. I take pride in knowing that Larry’s involvement in Special Olympics is his way of making the world better for so many athletes.