South Bay native gets schooled in teaching Israel

Bella Shapiro entered college “Jewish in spirit,” as she describes it, but “completely clueless, real apathetic” when it came to a deeper understanding of her Jewish identity.


Bella Shapiro


Today, Shapiro is anything but clueless.

The 24-year-old resident of San Jose will graduate next spring from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., with dual master’s degrees in Jewish professional leadership and Israel and Middle Eastern studies. Shapiro also is one of 20 individuals taking part in a new master’s concentration program — similar to a fellowship — sponsored by the iCenter, a national nonprofit organization working to enhance Israel education.

“I grew up in the South Bay in a typical Russian immigrant family. My parents were Zionists, but we were more Jewish in spirit than in practice,” Shapiro said. “I knew I needed to marry a Jewish boy, but that was about it. Now, I am politicized, really passionate about learning more — and after I graduate, I am committed to working on college campuses.”

What changed?

As an undergraduate, Shapiro attended St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga. “My little Catholic school didn’t have much to offer in the way of Jewish education,” Shapiro said.

But after graduating from St. Mary’s, Shapiro lived for 10 months in Jerusalem, where she was an intern at both the Israel Ministry of Tourism and at the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute. Shapiro’s adviser at Brandeis suggested she apply to the iCenter’s new program.

In addition to the Jewish leadership program at Brandeis, the nonprofit iCenter, located in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill., has teamed up with five other academic institutions to make the program possible: Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University, Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Schools of Education at Hebrew Union College, the Jewish education program at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University and the Jewish professional studies program at Spertus Institute.

The program, which was announced in May, “enables us to develop future Jewish educators as champions and leaders of Israel education,” said Anne Lanski, executive director of the iCenter.

Three months ago, the 20 participants — 15 women and five men — met for three days in Chicago to hear speakers address the status of Israel education in the U.S. They will meet again in January and next May. While attending their respective schools, the participants all study a common curriculum and work long distance with their mentors. Ultimately, each will develop a project, such as a lesson plan or an itinerary for student trips to Israel. Each participant receives a $2,000 stipend to help with the cost of the projects.

“By training people interested in Jewish education, the iCenter hopes to provide a cohort of professionals to provide more nuanced education in the U.S.,” Shapiro said. “The iCenter wants children to connect to Israel in a deeper, more meaningful way, to go beyond eating hummus and falafel and to talk about more than camels and cactuses and wars.”

She added, “What the iCenter wants to accomplish with this program is eventually to revamp — really to rebuild from the ground up — how Israel is taught, to influence Jewish education in day schools and in Hebrew schools, especially where Israel is not addressed adequately, or even at all. It is a great, admirable goal.”

It’s not surprising, Shapiro said, that many Jewish students leave high school with an incomplete picture of Israel, just as she did — but she emphasized that college is the perfect time to learn more about the Jewish state.

“College is such an important place for students to develop their identity. It certainly was for me. I guess I am something of a poster child for that,” she said.

“It’s strange that I have had to play catch-up, take classes and get a master’s degree to learn what others were raised with — but I have moved from being clueless to preparing myself to help spread the word.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.