A Memorial on Rabbi Steven Shaw z”l as a Founder of CLAL
By: Yitz Greenberg
Rabbi Steven Shaw (1942-2019) was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary but his passion and activities always incorporated the entire Jewish community. He was one of the key organizers of the historic Jewish student takeover of the 1969 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations. That is how I met him. The students demanded that the community leadership commit to invest heavily in Jewish education and shift its priorities from non-sectarian policies to the enrichment of Jewish life.
In 1972-1973, as the Department of Jewish Studies was organized at the City College of the City University of New York, Elie Wiesel and I had extensive conversations. We concluded that American Jewry needed an organization to teach that the Holocaust and the state of Israel were revolutionary and transformational events in Jewish life. The organization needed to lead in the rethinking and renewal of the religion in light of these events and push for deepening Jewish life with richer content and experiences. We agreed to bring in Steve Shaw to organize the project. Steve’s contribution was made in so many ways that it is hard to do justice to him as a key founder of CLAL.
Among his insights that led to the shaping of this organization was: that American Jewry needed (and sought) substantial spiritual and cultural content to nurture its identity and soul, especially in an age of growing exposure to alternate identities and culture; that the Federations were emerging as central addresses of Jewish communities and could be enriched with Jewish content and purpose that would make them the heart of vital Jewish communities; that a pluralistic approach was essential to reach the broader circles of American Jewry; that total environmental programs (like retreats and conferences) were highly effective educational experiences. CLAL’s original name was the National Jewish Conference Center and we hoped to establish such a Center to offer – and to stimulate wider use of – retreats to learn Jewish culture and values and to infuse them into Jewish organizational life.
Most of all, Steve was a genius at discovering individual religious/educational/spiritual talents and bringing them together to nurture each other as well as to the attention and service of American Jewry. I believe that he was the greatest of his generation in this capacity. He identified and brought into CLAL’s programs the brightest, the best, the most spiritually vital creative minds and teachers as well as authentic religious innovators of the late 20th century.
In the early years of organizing CLAL, we were unable to afford full time staff to work on the organization. After a couple of years, Steve needed a full time job, so he left to apply his genius for people and programming to other projects. This was a great loss for CLAL. We kept his name on the founders’ list because of his remarkable and indispensable impact on CLAL’s vision and mission. May his memory be a blessing.