Jerusalem’s ‘Beit Karen’ to honor memory of Pittsburgh philanthropist
Honoring a local legendPardes Institute's new home built in honor of local activist

Jerusalem’s ‘Beit Karen’ to honor memory of Pittsburgh philanthropist

Beit Karen, the new home of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, is being built to honor local activist Karen Shapira.

Deborah Shapira is chair of the North American board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and daughter of Karen Shapira. (Photo courtesy of Pardes Institute)
Deborah Shapira is chair of the North American board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and daughter of Karen Shapira. (Photo courtesy of Pardes Institute)

Karen Shapira, who passed away in 2005, always dreamed of having a home in Israel. And prior to her death from breast cancer at the age of 60, she expressed her wishes to be buried there.

Although her family wanted her closer to them in Pittsburgh, which is where she rests, she will nonetheless soon have an enduring presence in Jerusalem with the construction of Beit Karen, the new home of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

A ceremonial groundbreaking for the new building was held last month, with Karen’s family and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor in attendance.

The Pardes Institute is a pluralistic, co-ed Jewish learning community based in Jerusalem that also hosts various programs worldwide. Shapira served on the board of Pardes, having become familiar with the institution when her daughter, Deborah, spent two years studying there. When Shapira participated in a leadership learning seminar at Pardes herself, she quickly became an active supporter.

“She was a lover of being Jewish,” said her son, Jeremy Shapira. After their children had all left for college, he said, both his mother and his father, Giant Eagle, Inc.’s chairman, David Shapira, “started being much more interested in learning about being Jewish and getting much more involved in the Jewish community.”

The Shapira family from left to right: Daugher Laura Shapira Karet, son-in-
law David Gilinsky, son Jeremy Shapira, daughter Deborah Shapira, wife Cynthia Shapira and David Shapira. (Photo courtesy of Pardes Institute)
Karen Shapira took the responsibilities of leadership and volunteerism seriously. Among many other roles, she served as the president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) and as the executive secretary for the New York-based United Jewish Communities (now, the Jewish Federations of North America).

With an emphasis on community and philanthropy, Jeremy Shapira said, his parents realized that “one of the most important ways they could help the Jewish community was by making sure that people of all ages — but especially young people — could learn about their roots, and the important role that plays in helping people feel more connected to the Jewish community.”

Pardes, he said, presents those opportunities in a way that resonates with his family.

“The really wonderful thing about Pardes is it is totally serious about Jewish education, but it is also an extremely welcoming environment for all different kinds of people at all different levels of their own Jewish education,” the son said. “It’s for people who are serious about learning, but it isn’t intimidating to people who may not know that much yet.”

The concept of Beit Karen was born on a trip to Israel shortly after his mother’s death, during which members of the Shapira family visited the places and people in the Jewish state that were meaningful to her. While visiting Pardes, its leaders introduced the idea of building Beit Karen, Jeremy Shapira said.

That was 13 years ago, and it has taken more than a decade to work through Jerusalem’s zoning process, but now the building is slated to begin in the next few months, according to Ayala Young, director of communications for the Pardes Institute.

“It’s definitely a moment of celebration,” said Deborah Shapira, board chair for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, North America. “Our hope is that the building will be completed in five years.”

Hatikvah at the ceremony for the new building. (Photo courtesy of Pardes Institute)
Naming the new building for her mother is a departure from her family’s typical avoidance of “naming gifts,” she said. “If my mom were alive, there is no chance this would be a naming gift. But being associated with this particular building would have made her overjoyed. To really have something physical representing her in Jerusalem would have been really meaningful to her.”

The mission of Pardes was important to Karen Shapira, said her daughter, as it is a place where all Jews, regardless of their background, could come and have “a seat at the table and learn about traditional Jewish values and Jewish texts, and to learn with Jews who are different from them.”

The new building will bring to Pardes a larger, “more appropriate” space in which it can effect its mission, she noted. “Pardes has really needed a new space for a long time,” and the new building will be able to accommodate more students, visiting groups, and will house an auditorium fit to host “top-level” guest speakers.

“We are delighted to have broken ground on the site where Pardes’ new home, Beit Karen, will soon stand,” Rabbi Leon Morris, president of the Pardes Institute, said in an email. “In their support of Pardes, David Shapira and the entire Shapira family have invested in the future of a Jewish life anchored by rigorous and relevant study of our classic texts in ways that celebrate the diversity of the Jewish people.

“We are incredibly grateful for their commitment to our mission. May this new home be a lasting tribute to Karen’s memory, and may the learning that takes place within its walls perpetuate her values for years to come.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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