Once a month, a freezer truck from Chicago would pull into the Fargo, N.D., synagogue parking lot where his family and other Jewish families would collect their monthly supply of kosher meat. The NPR All Things Considered co-host describes the Fargo Jewish community as “really tight” and says that his family was one of those who belonged to two synagogues. They would attend the Reform temple on Friday nights and the Orthodox shul on Saturday mornings. Although Shapiro’s family only lived in Fargo until he was 8, Shapiro has fond memories of crawling underneath the seats during services and playing games in the synagogue basement.
On Sunday, Shapiro will be returning to the Midwest to give a talk titled “Immigrants…Making a Difference” for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest’s 35th-anniversary celebration. Shapiro says that he will be sharing stories from his experience reporting on immigrant stories from all around the world.
“So many of these stories share common threads that are also true of the Jewish immigration experience,” he said. “I hope that by telling some of these personal, specific memories of people that I’ve met, and what they have gone through, and what their experience has been, it will help us all better understand what drives these huge global forces of immigration and what we should think about the people in the middle of it.”
Shapiro cites his most recent international reporting trip to the Columbian-Venezuelan border. Today the Venezuelan exodus is the second-largest exodus of people in the world after Syria, but Shapiro notes that, until just a couple decades ago, people in Venezuela had an incredibly high quality of life.
“I think it’s easy to look at people who are desperately fleeing a country and think of them as somehow different from ourselves, but in fact, those people are just like us, and they would never have imagined that they would be in the situation they are now in. So I hope, by telling those kinds of stories and others like them, you can build a sense of empathy for the individuals in these circumstances.”
Connecting back to his Jewish background, Shapiro says he thinks about why on Passover we tell the story as though it happened to us and not people many, many generations ago. “I think the immediacy of that experience of telling the story as though we were the ones fleeing Egypt gives us an opportunity to relate in a more personal way than we otherwise might be able to do to those people who are currently fleeing war, or poverty, or climate change, or whatever it is that is forcing them to leave their country.”
Shapiro says that he was raised to think of the lessons of Judaism as informing our present life, and not purely as ancient history. “I think if your religion has no bearing on the present day, to me that’s less valuable and meaningful then finding some current application of the principles you get from Judaism.”
Shapiro will be speaking Sunday, September 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University of Minnesota campus, following a VIP tour of the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, one of the largest archives documenting the Jewish immigrant experience in the nation. Shapiro notes the importance of archives to our understanding of current events.
“I don’t think we can understand our present without understanding our past,” he said. “I think because so many people in the United States are recent arrivals, we need archives to show us where we came from and what happened before we arrived. That kind of reference point is essential to how we got to the present day.”