– One of the most important Jewish values that Marji Lipshez-Shapiro recalls learning from her parents was the belief in fairness and justice. “I’ve just heard about fairness and justice all my life,” says Lipshez-Shapiro, deputy director of ADL Connecticut. “I was a huge fan of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and lived through their murders when I was in the seventh grade. That was my call to action – a tragedy happened and I had to be part of the solution.” And Lipshez-Shapiro has most definitely been a part of the solution through her passionate, caring and unwavering fight against antisemitism, racism, bullying, homophobia, and hate in all forms. But now at 66, she has announced that she will be leaving the ADL after 32 years at the end of 2022. “I’m ready to leave but it’s bittersweet,” she says.
On Nov. 1, she received the Irwin J. Hausman Civil Rights award at ADL’s annual Torch of Liberty award dinner. Jeffrey Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford HealthCare, will received the ADL’s Torch of Liberty Award. Born and raised in Hamden, Connecticut, Lipshez-Shapiro says her parents instilled in her strong Jewish values. “Although I didn’t have a formal Jewish education, I did learn amazing Jewish values from my parents, which gave me the foundation for who I am,” she says. “Certainly tikkun olam was something that my parents were all about. Hearing that it's the duty of every person to leave the world better than you found it, was a key foundation for me. Another one was the value of education. My mother always used to say that as children we should ask questions, we should explore. And I've been an educator all of my life. That's how I define myself.”
Lipshez-Shapiro attended Colgate University, where she majored in psychology, and the Ohio State, where she studied higher education. Her first job was as a residence hall director at Cornell University. When her mother became ill, she returned to Hamden and became dean of residence life at Connecticut College. She soon entered the nonprofit world, working at organizations like the YMCA and Trinity Women’s Center.
In 1990, she saw an ad seeking a part-time coordinator for a new program the Connecticut office of the ADL was trying to begin called “World of Difference.” The program, created in 1985 by the late Leonard Zakim, a civil rights leader who served as director of the New England region of ADL, provided anti-bias educational materials for schools. It was used in major cities like New York and Boston before Connecticut ADL decided to bring it to Hartford and New Haven. “They had $18,000 and a dream, and I took it,”
Lipshez-Shapiro says. “I was hired to basically start knocking on doors and school districts and saying we have this program for teachers.” In 1995, under the umbrella of World of Difference, Lipshez-Shapiro created “Names Can Really Hurt Us,” an anti-bullying program which works with middle school and high school students. More than 350,000 teens have since participated in this program.
Soon Lipshez-Shapiro became education director at ADL, leading all of the organization’s educational programming. This included “Confronting Anti-Semitism” now called Words to Action. “That's done in synagogues, primarily to empower Jewish families to learn and know how to respond effectively to antisemitism. Now that program has started to grow to talk about antisemitism to [non-Jews] which is what everyone wants but it's not easy to do,” she says. “Schools do not invite us in for that…Most of the time I get interest in learning about antisemitism at a school when there has been an incident.” In the 2005, Lipshez-Shapiro began heading “Echoes and Reflections,” ADL’s Holocaust education program, created by the ADL in conjunction with Yad Vashem and the Shoah Foundation.
“I had no background in Holocaust education, and so I became obsessed with this. I studied and studied. Sydney Perry, who was at the Jewish Federation in New Haven gave me an opportunity to go on the March of the Living with 60 kids and that really upped my ante learning about the Holocaust, by being at death camps and processing that with kids,” she says. Lipshez-Shapiro has now trained about 1,500 teachers in Connecticut on the “Echoes and Reflections program, and has for years has brought Holocaust survivors into schools to share their stories with students.