Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Lori Shapiro: Almost an Actress

Her journey from theater to Judaism is as much an adventure story as any other, catapulting her from the Five Towns of Long Island to the Ba’al Teshuva Haredi community in Sfat where she said her “neshama was born.” 
September 22, 2021
Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Before I could ask the first question, Rabbi Lori Shapiro was already emotional. 

She had just gotten off the phone with a special Yom Kippur hire who had come down with a trenchant case of COVID-19 and likely needed to be hospitalized. This was days before Yom Kippur, and this person was a contributor to services at Open Temple, the experimental community Shapiro founded in Venice Beach in 2012 and where she serves as rabbi — even though she still can’t get used to the title.

“I never think of myself as a rabbi,” Shapiro, 50, told me. “When people say ‘rabbi’ I always look around, like ‘Who?’”

That’s probably because Shapiro has deep roots in the theater and was shaped in some essential way by growing up on stage. She has an appetite for the avant-garde and the unconventional.

Back in May, Shapiro appeared on a panel during the inaugural Jewish Psychedelic Summit (yes, you heard that right), and ever since, I’ve wanted to talk to her about why she supports the use of psychedelics in Jewish ritual. But one thing you quickly learn in conversation with Shapiro is that trying to lead her in a specific direction is like trying to herd cattle without a handler. Impossible.

Chalk it up to her theater background — Shapiro attended Stagedoor Manor, one of the most rigorous theater camps in the country as a teenager and was later accepted into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — because I barely got past question number one before Shapiro launched into a dizzying and dazzling monologue that spanned four decades, her unlikely, denomination-hopping journey to the rabbinate, her three years living Sfat, her favorite Jewish philosophers, the challenges of dating when she was single, the happiness she found with her husband, Joel, and two children, and even included Kerouac-style tales from the road about their pandemic-era hobby traversing American backcountry in their new family airstream. 

It’s easy to imagine that Shapiro’s effervescent, 100-mile-per-minute storytelling is a hit on the bimah. But although it is theatrical, it doesn’t come off as performed. Shapiro’s style is instead quirky and authentic. Over the course of our conversation, she laughed, she cried, she quoted Buber and Kaplan with as much zeal as she crooned Nina Simone, alternating seamlessly between vulnerability and confidence during an hour and a half that left me with a transcription of 4,000 words.

When I finally got to psychedelics, I was surprised to learn that Shapiro, though a supporter of the nascent movement to integrate psychedelics into Jewish ritual practice, has never actually tried them. She took a puff of pot once, only to discover, six hours later, it wasn’t all that different from her normal orientation.

“I dwell naturally in a very alternative place,” she said. “I was always, just, weird.”

I asked her to describe “weird.”

“I just did what I wanted: I wore different colored sneakers. I auditioned for Punky Brewster. I have no inhibitions,” Shapiro said. “There’s no shame in my life. At performing arts summer camp, I introduced myself as ‘Harmony Sunshine.’”

Her journey from theater to Judaism is as much an adventure story as any other, catapulting her from the Five Towns of Long Island to the Ba’al Teshuva Haredi community in Sfat where she said her “neshama was born.” 

“I didn’t grow up with Judaism,” Shapiro confessed. “I knew nothing. Every Friday night [of my childhood] Shabbat passed by, waiting for me to join her.”

Shapiro said the Judaism she inherited from her parents was “discontinuous,” perhaps the result of an intermarriage on her father’s side and her maternal grandmother’s experience in foster care. As a result, she grew up in an environment that sometimes felt lonely and isolated. “I never learned community,” she said. “I got nothing by default. Neither family system brought with it a sense of Jewish continuity, ritual or identity.”

It wasn’t until she discovered the world of theater that she found a portal to her calling.

“I found in theater the aesthetic, the beauty of life. It’s so in-the-moment. That’s why I wanted ‘Open’ Temple to break down the fourth wall.” 

“I found in theater the aesthetic, the beauty of life,” she said. “It’s so in-the-moment. That’s why I wanted ‘Open’ Temple to break down the fourth wall. I wanted to see Judaism turned into a non-proscenium experience, taking what’s esoteric in the Hasidic world and making it exoteric so that everyone can access it. Theater was my pathway.”

She never aspired to pursue theater professionally because, as she put it, “I never met a woman in her 40s who was happy as an actress.” Shapiro ultimately dropped out of Tisch and began a spiritual journey that led her to India, then Israel, then back to the U.S. where over the course of 13 years she matriculated at three different rabbinical schools until earning ordination at the Academy for Jewish Religion. The rambling journey also exposed her to every denomination of Judaism which, in turn, she rejected for a more inclusive, open-hearted Judaism.

“Denominationalism is a 19th-century Jewish innovation,” she said. “We’re just Jews. I feel like Judaism is a journey of understanding our place, like the Vetruvian Man, in the cosmos. And for whatever reason, I found the most beautiful expression of that journey through Torah, and it continues to inspire me and light my path towards whatever revelation I am supposed to experience and help bring forth next. I want to help people access that place I always dwell in. Because then we take our last breath and it’s done.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Lori Shapiro

Danielle Berrin: What’s currently on your night table?

Lori Shapiro: “Wonderworks” by Angus Fletcher. 

DB: Last show you binge-watched?

LS: “The Queen’s Gambit.”

DB: Your day off looks like…

LS: Take our airstream to New Mexico and visit Meow Wolf. 

DB: Favorite thing to do in Israel?

LS: Visiting the James Turrell skyspace, “Space That Sees” at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I go there on Shabbat and daven in the space and look at the sky til sunset. Then I do Havdalah and walk home. It’s my kotel. 

DB: Something about you most people don’t know?

LS: I came in 8th in my age group in the New York City Marathon.

DB: Most essential Torah verse?

LS: Lo tachmod — You should not covet. It’s about no attachment. It’s the closest we get to Buddhism in Judaism. We usually translate tachmod as covet, but really it’s the same root as hemda, desire. It’s about not attaching to something that isn’t a part of you and it’s the Tenth Commandment because it’s the key to life.  

DB: Biggest challenge facing the Jewish world?

LS: I don’t think the Jewish world has any different challenges than the ones facing the greater world. We are in galut. We’re in exile from compassion, connection, humility and love.

DB: Guilty pleasure?

LS: Watching movies with my girls on Shabbes. My children are gonna grow up thinking, dafka, Friday is the only night you’re allowed to watch a movie. 

DB: Favorite Jewish food?

LS: Open Temple’s latke lady. She’s this beautiful woman who cooks latkes for us every year on Hanukkah. They melt in your mouth. You know, my secret for when a woman is pregnant is  “eat like your ancestors.” Because it worked for them.

DB: If you weren’t a rabbi you’d be…

LS: I’d just be a chick who loves Torah. 

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