Arrivals: Steve Shaw: From New York to Jerusalem

Conservative rabbi Steve Shaw made aliya to better the lives of the Beduin community.

Steve Shaw 88 248 (photo credit: )
Steve Shaw 88 248
(photo credit: )
Conservative rabbi Steve Shaw made aliya for the most unorthodox of reasons - to better the lives of the Beduin community. Shaw, a compact 66-year-old bachelor, also took an unlikely path here. A journey that included stints in the boy scouts, a hassidic yeshiva, as the leader of a student revolt and membership in the National Rifle Association. The adventures culminated a few years ago when he was working in Israel on behalf of an American philanthropist investing in the Negev's Beduin. The job got him thinking that maybe the Holy Land was a place he could call home. "I was really thinking about moving to Maine. But in the back of my head there was a thought that maybe I'll stay in Israel, but it was such a stupid idea," he explains. However, Shaw's compassion for the Beduin and his commitment to improving their lives ultimately steered his decision. "I really didn't think I was going to make aliya. I never identified with Zionism. It wasn't until the Beduin that [Zionism] became the main reason I was here," he says. BEFORE ARRIVAL Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shaw has spent the majority of his adult life weaving through positions in the Jewish community and collecting a plethora of academic degrees. His first, from the University of Michigan, came in an odd pair of subjects: philosophy and forestry. This dual interest marked the beginning of a longtime pattern for Shaw as both a thinking man and a creature of nature. An eagle scout as a teenager and a Jewish Theological Seminary-ordained Conservative rabbi by his late 20s, Shaw skipped around studying in Israel, New York City, New Hampshire and Maine. His studies covered everything from nonprofit management to forest ecology. It was a trip to Israel and a semester at Hebrew University in 1963 that kick-started Shaw's interest in Judaism. He went from the university to Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and then to the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. The latter left a lasting impression on him. "I wanted to know if there was a God, and I still don't know, but I was in a position where I started thinking maybe all this is true. I went almost as an anthropologist to see these 'weird natives' and it was the most important experience of my life." PREPARATION Shaw's stay with the Lubavitchers came to an end and he returned to the United States. He went on to various organizational and management positions. After graduating from JTS, he carved a unique niche for himself in the Jewish community. In a 1982 Baltimore Jewish Times article he described himself "as a bridge between power brokers and the creative types." THOUGHTS ON ALIYA Regardless of Shaw's internal debate over whether to make aliya, he could not contain his excitement after finally having made the decision. "I wanted to kiss people when I got my identity card," he says joyfully. Shaw set up shop in Jerusalem with regular travel to and from the Negev. "I was fortunate in that I had a job and I already had friends and was familiar with the language," he says. "A very important thing if someone is going to make aliya is he needs a purpose." WORK Shaw now finds himself at the cusp of new projects and possibilities, but still within the framework of helping the Beduin. "One of the tragic aspects of the State of Israel is it has really not done what it could have done to help [the Beduin] prosper and develop. As a Jew I was embarrassed by the negligence. But on the other hand, I felt so strongly that it's my country, and that I'm responsible for what goes on here." LIVING ENVIRONMENT Shaw's bachelor pad is neatly decorated with Beduin crafts, a lighthouse model collection and dozens of posters and pamphlets arranged almost like a museum to his past projects and accomplishments. An NRA membership certificate is displayed in the hallway to, as he puts it, "provoke his liberal friends." Tucked away in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood in the back of an old Arab home cut up into apartments, this second-floor brightly-lit flat is Shaw's home base. He still holds on to an apartment in New York City and spends summers in Maine, but it is here where he finds himself comfortable. "My quality of life here is so much better," he says. HOBBIES Shaw holds on dearly to his interests in botany, bird watching, studying indigenous peoples and collecting "little things." His apartment is lined with posters of birds and scenes from New England and home to a collection of Native American trinkets, photographs and books. LANGUAGE From his time at the Hebrew University and religious studies, Shaw knew some Hebrew by the time he made aliya. Working with the Beduin helped, having no choice but to communicate with them in Hebrew. "I can get around without much difficulty, but I can't swear or get angry in Hebrew," he says. He intends to begin learning Arabic as well. IDENTIFICATION Shaw has surprised even himself by how his view of the world has shifted since living here and becoming a citizen. "I'm an Israeli to the extent that I now argue things that I would have argued against in the past," he says. "My worldview has changed to where it has become hard to hold the positions of a liberal American Jew." PLANS Shaw emphasizes that effecting social change is a slow process and that real strides among the Beduin will only be made over the long-term. To quicken the pace, he is hoping to centralize Beduin issues as those of concern to American Jews. "One goal is to make the tragic plight of the Beduin a priority of American Jews in a similar way to the Ethiopians," he says. By making them into a "cause," Shaw hopes that over time people will take responsibility as Zionists for the Beduin.